Me, Juan and Lima Bean were coming from the deli around the corner where they don’t card. We’d pooled all our money to buy a pack of Basics Gold and were now arguing about how three didn’t divide twenty right.
Juan was saying, “Man, I ain’t gettin’ stuck with six.”
“How is that fair?” I said. “You only kicked in like seventy-five cents.”
“Fuck fair.” Juan held out his palm, motioned with his fingers for me to put something in it. “I gotta habit.”
The final bell had already rung and the three of us were supposed to be in the gym with the rest of the basketball team getting ready for practice. But we were in no hurry. School was out for the weekend. The weather had girls wearing skirts. There really wasn’t anything else on our minds.
“Ok, ok, fine. Be like that. I’ll just bum ‘em off you guys once I’ve smoked mine.”
“You do that anyway,” Lima Bean said. “Maybe you should just quit.”
Juan stepped on Lima Bean’s shoe, then gave him a shove. “Maybe you should just shut up.”
At the rear of school property, we peeled back a broken flap of the sagging, rusted chain link fence and crashed through some bushes to end up on the breezeway that split right through the middle of campus. Coming the other way were Paige and Ashley, two identical twins from our grade.
“Hey,” Paige sang, bouncing towards us on her tip-toes. She opened her arms, reached up and gave me the kind of big hug that made her boobs smush like water balloons in between us. “You’ll give a girl one of those ciggies, won’t ya’?”
Paige was the first girl I’d ever kissed and she’d been my girlfriend — in fifth grade — for three and a half days over the Columbus holiday weekend. Back at school on Tuesday, she had Ashley slip me a breakup note during lunch. Now, we were supposed to be just friends, but that didn’t stop Paige from laying the mack on me any time she’d get the feeling to.
I said, “Of course, yeah, sure, have two.”
Paige slipped out of my hands, passed one to Ashley and said, “What’d I tell ya’? Such a sweetheart, isn’t he?”
The five of us went around to the back side of the gym, where we couldn’t be seen from the teacher’s parking lot, to light up. We huddled along the long, brick wall with the weeds and wind blown trash next to a door that led directly into the boy’s locker room. The door was supposed to be exit only; its outside handle had been sawed off. There was no way to get in except to pry the latch open with a knife and then hope that Coach didn’t catch you on the sneak. We did it all the time.
Ashley took a mouth puff off her smoke, blew it out. “So what are you guys doing this weekend?”
“I dunno,” we said. “Nothin’.”
“We’re going to Great America,” Paige said, meaning the theme park in Santa Clara, south of the city. She hooked her pinkie into my belt loop. “It’s gonna be so fun. You should come with.”
“I’m there. But you don’t wanna see Lima Bean on a roller coaster,” I said.
He shrugged, grinned at his shoes. “They make me barf.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re a freakin’ wuss,” Juan said. “I could ride ‘em all day. The crazier the better.”
“I’m that way too,” Ashley nodded. “I can’t help myself. Once I rode the Demon six times in twenty minutes and I got so dizzy that I fell over.”
“You enjoy them a little too much.” Paige rolled her eyes, giggled, cupped her hand to her mouth like she was letting us in on a secret. “Ya’ know, guys, Ash’s an epic screamer.”
“Duh.” Ashley backhanded her sister. “Am not.”
“Hey. Ow,” Paige said, then returned the slap. “Are to.”
“What-ever. It’s just like, I get so excited and I gotta let it out or else I’ll explode or something.”
“I’ll bring ear plugs,” Juan said, putting his arm around Ashley and reeling her in close. “That’s all the protection I’ll need.”
Just then, the heavy, metal gym door kicked wide open and slammed against the brick wall with a bang. The door bounced outward from the concussion, but then fell back against the brick twitching on its hinges like it’d been knocked out cold. We all froze. It was Coach.
“Real cute, boys,” he growled. “But who’s gonna protect your lousy butts from me?”
I snapped to attention, whipping my hands behind me. Paige spun on her heels, plucked the cigarette from my fingers. I could feel her breath in my ear. “Meet up at the playground, after dark, ‘k?”
Coach watched the two sisters leave, then, never blinking, narrowed his eyes to us. “You’re late. Again. I’m done playin’ with ya’, fellas. There’s rules on this team. You break ‘em, you suffer the consequences. Emphasis on suffering.” He jammed his clipboard under his arm pit and hiked up his sweats. “Responsibility. Teamwork. Effort. Those aren’t just words I say when I feel like wastin’ oxygen — they’re what I expect from every ball player. And ‘til I start gettin’ that from you, your butts are runnin’ thirty suicides apiece after practice — every practice.”
“But, Coach,” we stammered. One suicide — a continual sprint from the baseline to the free throw line and back, then to half court and back, then to the opposite free throw line and back and then, finally, baseline to baseline — was enough to make you want to puke. “Thirty?”
“Ten for bein’ late. Ten for smokin’ and ten,” Coach took Juan’s cigarette out of his mouth, snapped it over his thumb and ground it into the pavement. “Because the only way to get through your thick skulls is with pain. Now, don’t just stand there. Double time your butts inside, A-SAP!”
“Wow. What bullshit, man,” Juan complained. This was after practice. We’d survived, but just barely. Now, the three of us were in the showers, exhausted and doubled over with the kind of spastic, paralytic cramps you’d normally get from eating the cafeteria’s meatloaf. “Run. That’s Coach’s solution to everything.”
My whole body felt dead. Even the weight of the hot water spraying down on my head was too much to bear. I gave up, slouched my back against the tile wall, let my legs go limp and slid slowly to the floor.
Lima Bean moaned, “I’m not moving ‘til there’s no more hot water.”
“I’m not movin’, period,” I said.
But Juan was still going at it. “You’re late for practice? Run. Miss your free throws? Run. You fart and don’t say, ‘‘scuse me?’ Run.” Juan tipped his head back, let his mouth fill with water, gargled, then spit. “Builds character my ass. What the hell are sprints ‘sposed to be teachin’ us, huh? Only thing I’ve learned is that Coach is one sadistic motherfucker —”
“Ya’ can’t be that tired, numb nuts,” Coach shouted from his office on the other side of the locker room. “I can hear your mouths still runnin’.”
We choked back our laughter while Juan mimed an exaggerated replay of what Coach had just said, then, as he finished, whispered, “I don’t fucking care if you can.”
“Consequences to your actions, boys. Get used to it. You think bein’ on time is small potatoes? I say it’s bigger than you know.” Coach’s voice sounded like he’d swallowed the bead in his whistle. Either that or he was just worn out from yelling at us. “Nobody goes good or bad overnight. Get me? They’re just walkin’ a road they’ve been buildin’ they’re whole lives. That’s why I’m bein’ so hard on ya’ now; ya’ gotta learn your lessons young. Some day it’ll click and maybe — you’ll wanna thank me for it.”
Maybe. But it wouldn’t be today. Because, we’d already toweled off and dressed and were heading out the back door into the night. We had more important things to do.
We were going to Juan’s apartment to swipe the last dusty jug of his father’s sweet wine from the cabinet above the sink. And then later, after we’d had a couple of sips to ourselves, take it up to the playground to share with the girls and hopefully, have a good time.
“You sure your dad won’t be home?” I asked Juan as we got on our bus. I was worried because that was the only alcohol we’d be able to get. Lima Bean lived with his mom and grandma and grandpa, who didn’t drink, and my mom had got wise to us and started marking her bottles with a pen. “Paige really likes that Boone’s Farm.”
“You’re hopeless.” Juan flashed his MUNI pass at the driver and elbowed his way past me. “One look from that girl could tease the knots right outta your shoelaces.”
Lima Bean agreed. “She could do pretty much anything she wanted to him.”
“And with a little liquor in her, sometimes she does,” I grinned, holding out my fist while the two of them gave me daps. “So, is he gonna be there or what?”
“Yeah, right, sucker. Keep it in your pants, man, jeeze. I told you.” Juan took the gum he’d been chewing on and stuck it underneath the seat in front of him. “He won’t be there. He won’t be there ‘cause he’s hardly ever home any more.”
“Whattaya mean?” I asked him. “Since when?”
“I dunno. I didn’t mark it on the calendar, stupid.” Juan bent the brim of his ball cap and pulled it down to his eyes. “Since awhile, ok? Like after Mom went back to Mexico. I guess he got his truck license and took a job drivin’ long haul. Every four or five days he pops in for a nap and clean laundry, then he’s gone again.”
Juan slouched in his seat, looked out the window, not saying anything as the scenes of the city jerked on past. He was the youngest kid in his family. His closest brother was more than ten years older. I think he lived in New York or something.
“It don’t bother me, though, all right? I don’t need anybody to take care of me. I’m not a freakin’ baby.” Juan stood up and yanked the pull cord rapidly six or seven times. This was our stop.
“I’m serious,” he repeated, as we pushed our way out the rear door. “It don’t bother me one bit”
As we crossed behind the bus to McAllister towards Juan’s apartment, which was in the middle of a large complex of public housing that sprawled all the way through the Western Addition, we could see that something serious had gone down. Flashing red and blue lights were swirling off the buildings and we could hear the canned burble of an incoming voice over walkie-talkies. Cops were everywhere and the entire row of Section 8’s where Juan lived had been yellow-taped off.
Half a dozen squad cars were jacked up along the curb, doors flung open like they’d been piloted by a bunch of drunks who just abandoned them anywhere. A fire engine idled in the middle of the street shining a spotlight on the unit a few doors down from Juan’s apartment. Uniform cops with Maglites swept the bushes and the grass and the security gate that had been erected by the city to keep the residents safe.
One of the officers was talking to the rent-a-cop responsible for patrolling the public housing. He was just an old man in a wrinkled uniform who didn’t know anything, didn’t see anything and whose only answer to the cop’s questions was to shrug his shoulders.
“They’re not going to let anybody through,” Lima Bean said.
“You have to talk to that cop,” I said to Juan. “Tell him you need to be let into your place real quick. You gotta get your homework or somethin’. They could be here all night. I don’t wanna keep those girls waitin’.”
“You mean you don’t wanna keep Paige waitin’, ‘cause if you do she’s liable get bored and find somebody else to hook up with.”
I gave Juan a dirty look because in my heart, I knew it was true. “Just go talk to him, ok?”
The three of us approached the yellow tape and listened in as the officer finished up with the old man.
“So this car,” the cop was saying. He sounded bored. “What color was it?”
“It was dark,” the old man replied.
“Black? Blue? Grey?”
“No, I mean, it was dark. I got these cataracts and can’t see well at night.” the rent-a-cop took a handkerchief from his back pocket and ran it across his nose. “I’ll tell you, all I could make out was them wheels. You know, the kind of big, shiny hubcaps these kids put on the beaters they drive?”
“You mean rims? The things the tires are on?” It was then that the cop caught sight of us from the corner of his eye. He tucked away his pen, took two long steps to the perimeter. “You kids need to move it back to the other side of the street,” he said and blasted the three of us in the face with his high powered LED.
The light’s brightness was sudden and shocking. For a second, my mind felt like it had been completely erased and I had an overwhelming urge to piss.
“Um,” Juan stammered, blinking blindly into the glare. “I, uh, just had a question. About my homework.”
“Now that you mentioned it,” the old man said, looking over the cop’s shoulder. “One of ‘em looked kinda like that middle kid there.”
The cop’s flashlight moved to our hands, to our knees, to our shoes and back to our faces. “So where are you coming from?”
“Basketball practice,” I said.
“Have you been drinking? Any drugs?”
“He lives here,” I heard Lima Bean say. “What’s wrong with you, man, tell him.”
“Uh —” The words just kind of fluttered out Juan’s mouth and died in mid-air. “Uh, um, I mean, yeah, yeah, that’s right,” he pointed.
I chimed in. “Number Four. That’s probably how that old dude knows him. We just wanna get in real quick. Grab school books and other school stuff to like, study. That’s ok, right?”
“Study, huh?” The cop gave me a suspicious look.
Just then, Juan dropped his backpack and made a sudden move for his front pocket. The officer took half a step back and grabbed for his hip.
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” he commanded, flipping the safety flap on his holster.
But all Juan was doing was going for his keys. They were in his right hand, held by the ring, jangling together softly. “Number Four?” he said, meekly.
“Jesus.” The cop exhaled, clicked off his flashlight. “Listen, I know you’re probably just worried about your family, but I can’t let anybody in. We did a door to door evacuation. No one was reported missing or injured in any unit other than the one in which the incident took place. Now, please, kids, back it up to the other side of the street. Let us do our jobs.”
We shuffled across the street and stood on the sidewalk with the rest of the neighbors dressed in their pajamas and slippers and work clothes from the late shift. We all stared across the road like we were waiting for a parade to go on by.
“That cop almost shot you,” Lima Bean said. “That was cool.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, lighting a cigarette. “At least he would’ve been doing something.”
I was getting impatient. Most of the policemen had already stopped looking for clues. Some of them had gotten into their patrol cars and left, others were making small talk with the firemen. Not a lot seemed to be happening, but there weren’t any signs of anything actually being wrapped up.
“Man, can’t they move any faster?”
“Somebody probably died or got all messed up or something,” Lima Bean said. “Have some respect, man, jeeze.”
But all I could think of was that soft sound that Paige made as my hand made its way underneath her shirt. It wasn’t even a sound, really, more like a purr that vibrated up from inside her lungs.
“Well,” I said to Juan. “I guess one good thing is that your dad wasn’t around. Who knows what couldda happened to him if he was.”
Juan didn’t say anything. In fact, he hadn’t spoken one word since the cop almost shot him, which for him, was probably a world record for silence. It had me a little worried.
I tried to cheer him up. “I wouldn’t sweat it, man. Probably he’s just workin’ a lot of weird shifts or whatever. A man’s gotta earn a living.”
None of the neighbors had gone back into their houses yet. Some were gossiping, but most were keeping a close eye on the police. One dude even had his camcorder rolling.
“They gonna act right when they know they on film,” he said.
“But soon as they get back to the po-lice station,” another said. “All them evi-dences is goin’ straight inta the trash can. They done proved time and again that they got no in-trest solving a crime perpetrated on poor folk.”
“Either that or his work is taking him out of town or something like that.” I nudged Lima Bean. “Right?”
“No,” Lima Bean said. “I know what it is. Your dad is like our boy here. Probably some honey’s got him all wrapped around her dainty, nail polished pinkie. He’s taking her out, spending his cash —”
“Dumbass.” I kicked Lima Bean in the knee. “His parents are still married.”
“Right, I knew that. I didn’t mean it in that way.”
A little ways away from the rest us a man was muttering and laughing to himself. All he had on was an old pair of boxers and a white t-shirt with a faded photo of somebody’s face printed across the front. The shirt read: Willie Green 1982-2000 RIP.
“Poor Po-Po don’t know his ass from his elbow,” he said to no one in particular.
I asked him, “Do you know what happened?”
“Saw the whole damn thing go down from right outta my winda’. Couple of muthafuckas came strapped with guns an’ duct tape an’ kicked the Lewis’s door in. Had the whole family from gran-ma to baby facedown in the livin’ room.”
“A home invasion?” Lima Bean said. “What were they looking for?”
“Who knows, kid. Ain’t nothin’ in these dumps but roaches an’ frustration.”
We all stopped talking for a minute to watch a young woman be escorted out of the Lewis’s apartment into a waiting ambulance. She had a bandage across her eye and was wearing a fireman’s blanket because her clothes had been mostly torn off.
An old lady followed close behind her. “Oh, Lord — why — just a innocent baby. A baby. Sweet Je-sus what’d we do to deserve this?”
The man continued, “Saw them fools climb outta the back winda empty handed an’ duck inta a se-dan that was waitin’. Took off thataways.”
Lima Bean said, “Whoa. Really? Man, you should let the cops know so they can catch those assholes.”
The man screwed up his face disgustedly. “Shit. Ain’ no bis-ness of mine. Talk to the po-lice?” He was now speaking loudly enough for everybody to hear. “You kiddin’? Boy, I ain’t no snitch.”
Then he turned, cursing us and anyone else, went in his front door, snapped the dead bolt, closed the curtains and turned out all the lights.
“What a dick,” Lima Bean said.
“Whatta perfect waste to a Friday night,” I complained.
“I’m bored too,” Lima Bean agreed. “Let’s do something else.”
“My place?” I said. “Madden marathon?”
Just then, a purple box Chevy on triple golds crept through the intersection. The passenger side window rolled down, a whiff of smoke floated out. The brake lights blinked twice and then the driver hit the gas. The car reared on its haunches and sped off.
“All right?” I asked Juan. He didn’t move, he was looking at the car’s taillights as they disappeared around the corner. “Ok?”
“Uh — hey, man,” Juan said. His voice cracked feebly, like he was using it for the first time after coming out of a long, deep sleep. “You think, like, it’d be cool with your ma if I maybe just stayed the whole night at your place, too?”