(Image by Bart Galle)
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 lightning. 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 every day for minimum wage.
“Enchiladas!” The white girls giggle.
Plugger slams the breaks, slides, skids. Camacho laughs as Plugger jams it into reverse and they fish-tail 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 spot their hit while cruising the main strip – a cluster of punks drinking beers in the bowling alley parking lot.
“Geronimo!” They whisper.
They park Plugger’s junker in an alley around the corner – an old beat-up taxi painted black and lettered eerily 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 guerilla attack and piles out on them en masse. Plugger walks straight at them, Mr. Goodwrench 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?”
They rush them, 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 in some branch, something like a golfer’s hole-in-one, or a basketball player’s 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 enter 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 place 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 all right –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 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. Luckily all he bawled 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. Camacho 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 the forensic test.
“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. Think 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. 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 and 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 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 honchos 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 shootings 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 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 understand the complexities of math or science, or the 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 sister’s 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 a 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 letup.
“You want to go to 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 the life in the hood, drugs, guns, gangs. Things were different now than 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 waiting!”
“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 lightning 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 shin?’” They went in as soon as the old man opened. No customers then. They lifted their t-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 have been 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. 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. 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-lit 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 lightning? 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 lightning striking? If anyone would know, you would.
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, tangled in 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, tip-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.”
Rex Sexton is an award winning Surrealist painter exhibiting in Chicago, and his writing tends to have that illusory element about it. His novel “Desert Flower” was published by B&R Samizdat Express. His short story “Holy Night,” which received the Eric Hoffer Critic’s Choice Award, was published in Best New Writing 2007. His poems have been published in Willow Review, Mobius, Waterways, Edgz and others.