JUNE 3, 2020
THIS SHORT STORY IS FICTION, BUT IT DEPICTS GRAPHIC STATE VIOLENCE AND BRUTALITY.
When Manny was 19, he existed with no goals except to smoke weed, party, get laid, and drop acid. He had a dog paw tatted on his right bicep, and wore green contacts. His hair was short and full of gel, and the Smiths were his favorite band.
On TV, he watched Puff Daddy, Mase and the Lox sell rap records in shiny suits, while DMX, grimy and shirtless, told the world to Get at Him. Clinton was also about to face impeachment, while the Zapatistas were four years into creating another possible world. Jeans were baggy, Jordan was on the way to ring six, and Marilyn Manson was a star.
But Manny didn’t give a shit about most of those things. He lived in an eight-unit complex up the street from the Van Nuys courthouse. The building was the color of dirty sheep’s wool. The apartment was 600 square feet, with a wood floor, a concrete ceiling, and one bedroom. He and his four roommates would rock-paper-scissor every night for the couch.
The building was so infested with roaches that at night the kitchen walls would go from bone white to looking like dalmatian print. Sometimes, a morning bowl of Frosted Flakes had a raisin-not- raisin floating in the milk. Manny would just pluck out the invader, and enjoy his breakfast.
Daily, Manny threw on white Ts and slim fit jeans. Whenever he stole — or bought — a new pair, he would make small cuts into the pant leg, at the ankle hem. This way his pants fit snug over his mahogany Harley boots. Manny’s boots had thick black soles and straps that went over the front arch with a small silver buckle. Some blood had stained the tip of Manny’s right boot, because he had kicked some Armenian pretty boy in the face during a brawl on Sunset. The kid’s mouth and teeth looked like a wet tunnel to hell as he lay unconscious on the street. Months had passed and the fight was still cherished and celebrated lore among Manny’s friends.
The night Manny clicked into a soft political understanding of the world, he stood near the apartment building’s outside stairway. Manny had his right boot on the first step of the complex, and both his long sinewy limbs held his belt buckle, which was brass and shaped like a weed leaf. Manny looked at his boys David, Marco, Nester, and Hugo, who were a few feet away, gathered around David’s car: a beat-up burgundy ’88 Honda Sentra. Each held their shoulders and arms in a way that said fuck the world.
Marco, Nester, and Hugo all wore white Ts like Manny, but David sported a brown flannel with gold trim. Their
Levis had big folds at the bottom too. Only David’s jeans had the cuts in the hem like Manny’s. Ts, Levis, and boots, their collective uniform. Marco added a little flair with a pack of Marlboros in the fold of his short sleeve, while the brothers Nester and Hugo had chains attached to their wallets looping from their back pockets to the belt holes over their hip bones. Chicanos reimagining the faux rebellion of CK ads.
That night, the air was humid and still. Their corner lit like a pumpkin. The rest of the street baked under the shroud of valley smog that clung to old trees, and low-rise buildings, shaping a box-square-square Gothic landscape. This part of L.A. was hardly ever in the movies. It didn’t have the lore of neighborhoods that helped define the city; but its conditioning was all too familiar.
Manny and his boys passed around a joint. It smelled like burning wood and ammonia. The smoke didn’t seem to move at all, sticking to the air around them. Manny was the first to hit the joint as the words Biggie Biggie Biggie can’t you see played through three of the four speakers in David’s car. The song’s undulating bassline buzzing along more than its intended thump.
“Damn bro, this weed is harsh.” Manny said coughing between his words. “Who was your hook up?” He passed the joint to Nester.
“What? It’s not that bad,” David said.
Manny noticed David looking around at the others to agree, his long lean frame suddenly unsure of itself. The others said nothing as Manny coughed into his closed fist.
“It’s all good dog,” Nester finally said. The sound of “Hypnotize” faded out.
“Manny what the fuck is wrong with you, homes? Do we need to start calling you baby lungs? You sound like you’re going to throw up and shit,” said Hugo, flexing his chest and biceps as he grabbed the joint from Nester.
“I’m good fucker. I think the weed got caught in a clump of your lady’s dried-up pussy juice. She let me go down for a bite earlier.”
“What, fool?” Hugo said smiling, lifting a fist over his head. Hugo wasn’t tall, but he was bulky and thick as bricks. He should’ve played fullback in high school, but liked girls and cars more than meaningless packets asking questions about math, science, or English.
Manny took a couple steps back giggling. They all laughed. Marco then took a couple of puffs on the joint as Tupac’s voice crept into their ritual. The four-note piano loop began, and those stuttering drums and whiplash snare hit in a way that helped amplify the effects of the weed.
“Ah, what?! This is my shit,” Nester said as he plugged his upper body in the passenger door of the Sentra. Like his brother, Nester was short, but he also had a solid build that was becoming doughy from his love for emptying Mickey’s bottles. He turned up the volume and the kick drum of “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” popped like a balloon through the feeble speaker in the door.
“Damn, homes, you need to hook up your sounds. My little sister’s toy stereo bumps better than this,” Hugo said, shoving David on his shoulder.
“Fuck you, fool,” David said. He smiled and took the joint from Hugo. Nester and Manny swayed to the beat.
“Aye, Manny you need to make me a dub of this. You put some good songs on here, dog,” Nester said.
Manny just nodded, no longer coughing and wiping tears from his eyes. He watched his friends. These not-boys, not-men, silent as Pac’s words cleared space. They stood around at their nothing and everything, searching for affirmation in each other, and beyond the buildings. Collectively, they played out their version of macho and cool inside a long stolen and colonized territory. Manny knew this was his family.
“Aye, Manny, you working tonight?” David said.
“No I’m off,” Manny said.
“Cool. We should try and hit up Lupe and Sally later. See if they want to kick it again.”
“I’m down with that.”
They were all on the brink of the next inevitable phase — their inner life force at the beginning of being coerced into disposable labor power. Manny worked part-time night shifts at Target to pay for rent and play. David was in a tech school for computers, while living with his parents. Marco was thinking of joining the army. Nester was jobless and living with his brother; and Hugo the oldest, legally able to buy alcohol, worked at a tire and rim shop. None had children, and only one serious girlfriend among the five.
They came together three or four nights out of the week to talk shit and plan their monthly parties, thinking this would be a forever routine. The slang, the boots, the slim fit Levis, and slicked back hair, an armor against the rapacious dusk of working-class poverty. A small rebellion against the mothers and fathers whose dreams never took shape beyond the paychecks that landed them in these streets and away from the dictators and thieves of their homelands.
The joint dwindled down puff after puff up into the starless sky. Pac’s song ended and another song took over: a woman’s bombastic vocals saying deep deep deep inside, deep deep down inside.
“Aye fool, what the fuck is this caca? Some happy house? Don’t put this on the tape when you dub it for me,” Nester said. Everyone except Manny laughed.
“Fool, we dance to this shit every weekend,” Manny said.
“No shit stupid ass. But I’m too drunk to care and got some tetas in my face.”
Nester shoved his brother for effect. They began to wrestle and slap box. Manny, Marco, and David egging them on: Fuck’em up, … gunna let em disrespect you like that, … uh oh watcha watcha.
Manny stepped in when he saw Hugo catch his brother on the cheek with a swift open hand. Nestor’s face was tinted red and contorted in anger. Manny knew even as brothers that one playful slap could turn into a real fight. Each was ready and skilled in finding an opponent’s weak spot: a relaxed knee, an exposed throat, and open chest. It had happened many times among them, and if Nester reacted, they’d spend the night trying to calm drunken slurs of “fuck that fool.”
Manny said, “Alright, calm down, before one of you fools gets butt hurt and you both end up leaking. Chill out. I’ma roll another joint.” He walked toward the car.
“Whatever, aye,” Nester said, eying his brother. “Aye fool while you’re in there, fast-forward this shit.”
Hugo stood chest out about three feet away from Nester, next to David.
They all turned their heads as a figure moved in the distance.
“Hey, who’s that creeping up,” said Marco.
“Oh, that’s just Little Richie, Crazy Eddie’s baby brother. He’s the one who sold me the weed. I told him he could come smoke with us,” David said.
“What! Never buy from Little Richie. He steals that shit from his brother. No wonder that shit had so many seeds and tasted like a donkey’s ass,” Manny said from the car.
All of them watched Little Richie walk up, head cocked to the concealed stars. His tan and black collared shirt buttoned to the top, with khaki Dickies eight sizes bigger than his waistline, folded at the bottom over some black Nike
Cortez. Creases ran down his pants like the lines were made with a ruler. He also had thumbtacks in the back of the shoe’s heel to keep the pants from dragging. Little Richie’s walk was equal parts insecure and fearless.
“Hey Little Richie, isn’t it past your bedtime, homes?” Nester called out.
“What, fool! Hell nah.”
Nester, Hugo, and Marco laughed.
Little Richie stopped with his hands in his pockets and said, “So, you fools still smoking or what?”
“I don’t remember you putting in on the sack, big guy,” Hugo said.
“What? This fool bought it off of me.” Little Richie pointed to David. “I hooked it up for you fools and everything.”
“And everything…” Nester mocked. Little Richie put his head down.
“We’re just fucking with you little homey. We were about to toke up right now,” Hugo said, grabbing Little Richie on the shoulder. He picked his head up.
After a few clicks and stops on the tape, Manny played the Smiths “How Soon Is Now?” The jittery warble of the guitar came in over the slumbering drums. Morrissey’s ghostly vocal took precedence alongside the erotic groove. The song came together like a narcotic.
Manny sat inside David’s burgundy Honda Sentra, and through the weed and sound, it felt like it morphed into a ’67 Jaguar Roadster.
Manny watched David put some sway in his hips. David said, “Fuck yeah.” Manny bopped his head over the joint he was rolling and turned up the volume.
Halfway into the first verse Little Richie chimed in, “What are you fools listening to? This shit is gay. Sounds like music my sister plays when she’s on her period.”
“Aye, shut your little verga mouth Richie. You don’t know nothing about this. Don’t fuck up my high or I’m gunna have to spank you like your mommy when she finds out you’re not in bed,” Manny didn’t bother looking up at him.
“What dog?” Little Richie said.
“Chill man, or we won’t buy from you anymore,” David said, his hand firm on Richie’s chest.
Manny lit the second joint, hit it, and passed it to David. The song played on, like a soothing bubble around their bodies. A moment of safety. No shields needed to guard their manhoods. Marco danced to himself like he was holding a beautiful woman right there in their circle. His slick black hair shined in the faint streetlight. He was a spotlighted, chrome microphone.
“Hey! Hey guys,” an uneven voice called out from the shadows. All six heads looked up. Marco almost tripped off the sidewalk to see the person speaking.
“Hey, could you guys turn that down or go inside, you know, your apartment.” The obscured face called out from the
second story of the complex behind a window screen.
“Tom, shut your white ass up before I come up there and violate you,” Hugo said.
Marco gave him five near the hip and said, “Right. Opie better stop trippin’.”
“Come on guys, really? I have to get up for work tomorrow! It’s a Wednesday night for Christ sakes. I can smell the weed all the way up here, and your music won’t let me sleep.”
“Close your damn window then fool,” Manny shouted. He was a bit conflicted. He wanted to show his friends that he stood by them, but Manny did live there, and Tom was prone to complain to the landlord about the smallest disturbances, and Manny didn’t want to get kicked out.
“Really, Manny! I mean, I know you live here, but do you really live here? I see how many people come in and out of that apartment every day.”
“Yes, mothafucka! What you tryin’ to say,” Manny said in a tone that recalled the days when he was the only Mexican in a crew of all Black kids in middle school. Nester eyed him suspiciously.
The still, humid air was becoming tense.
“Man, let me go regulate on this fool,” Nester said, taking a few steps toward the stairs. Little Richie laughed hitting the joint.
“Nah, fool, chill,” Manny said, putting his arm in front of Nester. He felt Nester’s belly clench with excitement. Nester smacked Manny’s arm away.
“Well guys, you leave me no choice. I’m gunna have to call the police,” Tom said.
“Tom, who told your ass to move into a neighborhood full of crazy Apaches anyway? You know Encino and Sherman Oaks are up the Boulevard, right?” Hugo said calmly.
Tom huffed, struggled for words. “I mean, guys, really, uhm, I don’t have to explain myself to you.”
“You talk like you’re making big money shoveling dog shit at the animal shelter, Tom,” David said.
“You know, I’m not gunna argue anymore. I’m calling the cops.” Tom’s head moved away from the window. He had actually been in the complex for a few years. He was the only white person on the block. He was single with no pets. Actually no one ever saw anyone but his mom and younger brother visit him. Tom even fed a few of the apartment pets. Still, he just didn’t know when to shut the fuck up and take the noise. This wouldn’t be his first time calling the police.
They all turned to each other. “That fool ain’t gunna call the cops, is he?” asked Marco. Manny looked over at the window and shrugged his shoulders. His first impulse was to tell them to go inside, but he didn’t want to back down to Tom, or seem like a punk to his friends, so he kept his gaze angry and firm.
“Hey, put that shit out,” David told Little Richie. He stubbed the joint out on the curb.
Hugo walked to the driver side of the car and turned the music off through the open window.
“Where should I put the rest of this joint,” asked Little Richie.
“Here,” Manny grabbed it and put it under a loose brick that separated the sidewalk from a small patch of grass.
They all turned their heads as Manny’s roommates Jessie and Olivia came out the front gate.
“Hi, boys,” Jessie said smoking a cigarette, a big smile on his face.
“What’s up Jessie? Where you two, headed?” asked Manny.
“Uhh, none of your business little boy,” Olivia interjected.
“Alright, love ya too, mijita. Have a great night,” Manny said. He actually wanted to call Olivia a bitch, but instead he placed his slender veiny hands into his pockets and slouched his thin shoulders. Manny then made a sound like he was clearing his throat.
“Manny, seriously, you better get your dumb ass friends inside,” Olivia ordered. “We heard Tom yelling.” She was all dolled up. Hair flat ironed, precision eyeliner, deep red lipstick, and her flat stomach out on display with a cheap chain wrapped over the hips. Her breasts and ass dominated space like Saturn and Jupiter. Her heels and car keys clicked like a seductive metronome with each step.
“Okay, bye boys,” Jessie added as he followed behind his sister.
“Dude, I don’t know how you do it. Olivia is fine as hell,” David said.
“Yeah, well you can say I’m not her type,” Manny said.
“What? Un gringo with un chingon de plata,” Hugo added.
“Yup,” Manny replied.
“Yeah, I seen her come through the spot asking for discounts on tires for her little Trevors and Bobbies in their
Beemers and Benzes. Shit ain’t right if you ask me. But David’s right. She is finer than a motherfucker,” Hugo said.
They all kept their eyes on Olivia until she disappeared into her car.
“You know what I don’t get, Manny?” said Nester.
“How you live with a faggot,” he said firmly.
“Tu sabes,” Little Richie added with his fist out. Nester left him hanging.
“Damn, Nester, that’s a little harsh, no? Especially when you don’t mind all the tail Jessie brings to the parties,”
Manny said. “Shit didn’t you and these two fools run a train on his little co-worker a couple weekends ago?”
“So, what, fool? I don’t sleep under the same roof as him. I guess you already got a thing going with Boy George, huh? Out here defending him and shit.”
“Okay anti-gay Terminator. You know what they say about dudes like you, right?” Manny said.
“And what’s that?”
“That it makes you so mad because you want to swing that way, Rambo.”
Nester got wild in the eyes and stepped toward Manny, “You calling me gay, homey?”
“Did I say that? But aye, if you wanna get froggy, ain’t nothing between us but space and opportunity.”
Hugo grabbed his younger brother by the waist, “Chill baby bro. You lookin’ crazy right now. You gunna make me think you are chueco with how crazy you’re actin’.”
Nester easily wrestled himself from Hugo’s grip. “Man fuck you fools. I’m going to get a 40.” He began to walk to the liquor store.
“Wait up, I’ll come with you,” Marco said and the two walked off together.
Manny was being playful, but he was ready if Nester kept acting up. Their difference in size and mass was of no concern to him. But he knew that it was these types of arguments that made them all friends, even through moments of distortion. Their memories and emotions churning within them like fission and fusion inside the sun. Nature or nurture, these types of bonds manifested in every corner from coast to coast. Each crew of men bonded with its own spirit-crushing and soul defining hierarchy. Love, violence, and sex revolving around their bodies like comets and asteroids.
Even still, Manny hadn’t forgotten about Tom calling the cops.
“He’s been drinking a lot lately, que no,” David asked Hugo.
“Yeah. Mom getting sick and having no job is getting to him. He’ll be alright though.”
Then as though Tezcatlipoca had come to lay claim on their souls, Adolfo pulled up in his ’57 Chevy Bel Air bumping The Sunglows’ “It’s Okay.” The laughing elements of Sunny Ozuna’s voice ringing out the windows like a mad drunk on a megaphone. Adolfo’s Bel Air squealed to a stop behind David’s Sentra. The whole car was sanded down ready for a new paint job. Adolfo stepped out with an open tall can in a brown bag.
“Whadup, big dog? The ride is looking good. You got all them dents out of it,” Hugo said, followed by a slap of five and a fist bump.
“Yeah my little cousin and his friends have been doing all the body work. Not bad if you ask me. They gunna paint it next weekend too.”
“That’s what’s up,” Manny chimed in. “What color?” His face was equal parts impressed and annoyed that Adolfo had left the music playing loud. Luckily, the song was coming to an end.
“Straight Black. Black and chrome. She’s gunna be the prettiest thing rolling through the valley homeboy. Lookin’ firme.”
Little Richie, hands in his pockets, looked at the inside of the car. White and gray leather seats, long like a park bench.
Adolfo was 10 years Hugo’s senior. He was the unofficial leader of their branch of a party crew that extended from the San Fernando Valley into the Inland Empire. He had stories of dropping acid with Dennis Hopper and selling coke to Debbie Harry. With no proof, the boys believed him because he partied like he was cut from the ’80s. Adolfo had a taste for cheap booze, quality coke, and young chocha, even though he was married with three kids.
Adolfo said, “So … homeboy I was telling you fools about last week,” they nodded their heads, “he’s gunna let us use his crib for the party.” He pulled out a piece of folded-up notebook paper from his back pocket, an address, name, date, and time scribbled on it. He handed it to Hugo, who handed it to David. Manny inspected it with David silently.
“So I’m’a need you guys to get some dope-ass fliers made up and start getting word out. We only got two…”
Before Adolfo could finish his sentence that same sad voice rang out from above again.
“Listen, I warned you guys. I wanted to be nice about it. You could’ve just gone inside.”
They all looked up and then to the south. Some blue red and white lights were flashing silently and approaching them slowly. A siren quickly bleep bleep blopped into their direction. Two cop cars.
Before the cars came to a complete stop, Little Richie took off running.
“What the fuck is that moro doing?” Adolfo said, confused.
“Hey freeze!” A cop jumped out of the slowly moving car. He ran after Little Richie whose over-sized khakis, and plump weight had him struggling to get away. His cortez and the cop’s boots tip tapping an agitated tempo into the street.
“The rest of you do not move,” a generic megaphone voice called out from the vehicle.
Suddenly time stretched like rubber, and sound became a slow hum. Manny looked up toward Tom’s window. His veiled face seemed just as nervous above, as theirs were below. Tom was running his hand through his ragged hair and his eyes were wide, hardly blinking, the bedroom light behind him obscuring the rest of his facial features.
Manny, David, Hugo, and Adolfo all watched the cop reach for Richie’s shirt. As the cop tried to pull Richie back, Richie stopped, crouched, and twisted under the pull with a strength and agility beyond his age and size. The cop slipped on wet grass and Richie slipped out of his grasp. They all expected him to run left into the neighborhood. It was dark. He knew the layout. He could dip in and out of the small homes and apartment complexes. Instead Richie ran across the street toward the back end of the closed 99 Cent Store, a pawn shop, and a bank. Their signs shone next to the main streetlights that lit up the path of Richie’s attempted escape route. Richie took eight rapid steps looking back toward the angry cop getting back on his feet. Manny actually counted them. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, then pop pop pop. A cop had pulled up in another car, and shot from the window. He still had his arms extended, smoke rising out the barrel, wedged inside the opened car door. Richie fell to the ground like the awkward teenage boy he was, eyes toward the sky. His hollow expression shook Manny. It grabbed something in him, something so interior that it was beyond performance or the desire to be cool or the need to be tough.
Hugo screamed, instinctively running out toward Richie as another cop car arrived. Two other cops got out and tackled him, slamming his body into the concrete. They struggled to handcuff Hugo as he cursed and fought them.
David stood still, seemingly numb, slowly walking off the curb and into the street, repeating “Why did you shoot him? Why did you shoot him?” His eyes were filling with tears. It seemed like he wanted to move toward Richie, but all David did was stop, look around, and raise his hands to his head.
Manny looked up at Tom. He yelled at his window, “You fuckin’ peckerwood!” He grabbed the loose brick, that had been concealing the joint, hurled it at the window. He missed, but the thud against the wall getting a fifth cop’s attention.
The cop grabbed Manny from behind and yelled, “Calm down, son.”
“Let me go you swine-fucking motherfucker,” Manny said.
As the cop’s arms reached toward and around his neck, it was here that Manny began to feel and understand that he and those he loved had been fighting for space. That they had to affirm why it was okay for them just to laugh, talk shit, and dance. That some voices were deemed more important than his and those that he loved. In the space under his heart, maybe above his stomach, an anxious fear blossomed. It scared him, but it also filled him with rage.
Manny kicked at the building’s wall. He and the cop fell to the ground. A sixth cop came and slammed his baton into Manny’s stomach. The pain shot from his gut, swirling in a spiral and moving through his body. His mind became an empty black expanse where word and form were not taking shape.
Manny heard Tom shouting from ab-ove, “Oh my god … I, I, I, didn’t, I’m sorry.”
Two more cop cars arrived, five new cops total. People in the neighborhood began to creep out of the houses and apartments. Light was everywhere, and time suddenly snapped back to normal speed, sound amplified by a hundred. Cops began to yell at people to move back. Hugo was still cuffed, belly on the ground gazing at Richie, his eyes full of tears and anger. Little Richie was gasping for air, as the cop who slipped and fell, turned him on his stomach and placed him in handcuffs. David and Adolfo were being searched, not yet cuffed.
As he was brought to his feet, Manny noticed Nester and Marco running up behind the crowd. Nester yelled for his brother. He threw the beer bottle he just bought at the cop cars. After the shatter, Nester and Marco were both face down and getting roughed up.
Manny with the pain still lingering in his stomach, moved his eyes back above Tom’s window, catching a quick glance of the nothing darkness above, before he was shoved in the back seat of the squad car. No one had bothered to turn off Adolfo’s stereo. The Shields’ “You Cheated, You Lied” covered the scene like a damp blanket. Manny wanted to scream, but he went numb as he thought about Richie’s mom and brother and sister. What body would blame find? In that instance it seemed to Manny like the whole neighborhood was yelling at the cops, but people were in shock while most were scared. The cops began barking orders at people to “Move Back!” and “Calm Down!”
Manny sunk his head, and stared into his lap, hands behind his back, breathing through his nose. The chaos outside the window pressed against his ears into a jumbled metalloid screech. He felt all that was important before Richie took those eight steps, lose some of its definition, its beauty, a bit of its meaning. Dissonance was his companion.
When Manny picked his head up again, the cop who shot Richie, was searching his body. He pulled five small bags of weed from Richie’s pockets, said, “Got it.” He held the baggies up like another expected victory.
Francisco McCurry is a decolonizing native, traveling the spaceways of planet air. He is working on a novel called Lucha Libre in America and holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. He pays bills working in education, and knows Wu- Tang is Forever.