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By Ryan Gattis
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2015 Ryan Gattis
All rights reserved.
APRIL 29, 1992
I'm in Lynwood, South Central, somewhere off Atlantic and Olanda, putting tinfoil over trays of uneaten beans at some little kid's birthday party when I get told to go home early and prolly not come back to work tomorrow. Maybe not for a week even. My boss is worried what's happening up the 110 will come down here. He doesn't say trouble or riots or nothing. He just says, "that thing north of here," but he means where people are burning stuff and breaking out storefronts and getting beat down. I think about arguing, because I need the money, but it wouldn't get me anywhere, so I don't waste my breath. I pack the beans away in the truck's fridge, grab my coat, and leave.
Earlier in the afternoon when we got there, me and Termite — this guy I work with — saw smoke, four black towers going up like burning oil wells in Kuwait. Maybe not that big, but big. The birthday kid's half-drunk father sees us notice them as we were setting up tables and he said it was because the cops that beat Rodney King aren't going to jail for it, and how did we feel about it? Man, you know we weren't happy, but we don't tell our boss's client that! Besides, it was a raw deal and all, but what did it have to do with us? It was blowing up somewhere else. Here, we shut up and do our jobs.
I been working the Tacos El Unico truck going on three years. Whatever you got, I'll sling. Al pastor. Asada. No problem. We do some nice cabeza too, if the mood hits you. Otherwise there's lengua, pollo, whatever. You know, something for everybody. Usually we park over by our stand on Atlantic and Rosecrans, but sometimes we do birthday parties, anniversaries, anything really. We don't get paid by the hour at these, so I'm happy when they're done sooner. I say bye to Termite, tell him not to show next time without washing his hands good, and head out.
If I walk fast, it's twenty minutes home, fifteen if I take the Boardwalk through the houses. It's not a boardwalk like Atlantic City or nothing. It's just a thin little concrete alley between houses that serves as a walkway between the main street and the neighborhood. That's our shortcut. As my sister would say, "fools been running from the cops on it since forever." Go down and it takes you straight to Atlantic. Go up and it leads into the houses, street after street. That's where I go when I get there. Up.
Most people's porch lights are off. Backyard lights too. Nobody's out. No familiar sounds. No Art Laboe Oldies music playing. No people fixing cars. When I'm passing houses, I only hear TVs on, and all the anchors are talking about is looting and fire and Rodney King and black people and anger and that's cool, whatever, because I'm focused on something else.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not being cold or nothing like that, I'm just taking care of what I need to take care of. You grow up in the same neighborhood as me, one with a gun store that sells single bullets for twenty-five cents to anybody with bad thoughts and a quarter, then you might end up the same way. Not jaded or pissed or anything, just focused. And right now, I'm counting months till I can get out.
Two should do it. That's when I'll have money saved up to get some wheels again. Nothing fancy. Just something that gets me to work and back without having to walk these streets. See, I been cooking someone else's recipes forever, but I'm not trying to stay that way. When I get my own car, I'm driving to Downtown and begging for an apprenticeship in the kitchen at R23, this crazy sushi spot smack in the middle of a district that used to make the majority of toys in the world, but now the warehouses are all empty, and the toy stuff is up to China.
I heard about it through Termite, because he loves Japanese too. I mean, he loves everything Oriental, especially women, but that's besides the point. He took me up there last week, and I dropped thirty-eight pinche bucks on a meal just for myself, but it was worth it because of what these Japanese chefs did. Stuff I never even dreamed of before. Spinach salad with eel. Tuna seared up so good with a blowtorch that it's cooked on the outside and all buttery and raw in the middle. But what really shook me was this thing called a California roll. Outside it's rice pressed into these little orange fish eggs. Inside it's a green circle of seaweed around crab, cucumber, and avocado. It was that last ingredient that messed me up bad.
Man, you don't understand. I'll do anything to learn from those chefs. I'll wash dishes. I'll sweep floors, clean bathrooms. I'll stay late every night. I don't care! I just want to be near good Japanese food, because in the time it took me to order the roll for its name, stare at it and decide I didn't want it because I'm sick of avocado, only for Termite to call me out and by then I just had to shrug and take a bite. When it hit my tongue, something sparked inside me. My whole brain just lit up and I saw possibilities where I'd never seen any before. All because some chefs took something I was so bored with, something I see every day, and turned it into something else.
Cut, scoop, and mash enough avocados and you'll know. You'll get an ache in your bones quick, the kind that only comes from your hands memorizing movements by doing them over and over till you do it in your dreams sometimes. Make guacamole every day but Sunday for almost four years and see if you don't get sick of those slimy green suckers too.
Something smacks the fence by my head and I jump back with my hands up and ready. I laugh when I see it's just a fat orange cat because damn, that got my heart going.
I keep moving though. Lynwood's no place to be caught standing still, not if you're smart. Downtown's different. It's a better world up there, at least it could be for me, and there's so many things I want to know, so many questions I want to ask those chefs. Like, how does this place affect food anyway? I may not know much, but I'm pretty sure they don't have avocados in Japan. Our roots in this city are in Mexican food, because California used to be Mexico. California's even got a little Baja beard that still is Mexico, even though the land north of it is something else now. Like me, kind of. My parents are from Mexico. I was born there, and carried to L.A. when I was one. My little sister and brother were born here. Because of them, we're Americans now.
This's what my walks home are for. Kicking questions around in my head, dreaming, thinking. I get lost in it sometimes. As I'm turning the corner onto my street, I'm back to wondering what the hell a Japanese chef was thinking before inventing the California roll and my mind's ticking over how even avocado can become something new and beautiful when put in different circumstances, and that's when a car with a grumbling engine comes up behind me.
I don't think much of it. Not really. I move to the side but it brakes next to me. So I move all the way over, right? Like, no problem, he'll just go by when he sees I'm not involved. No cholo uniform. No tattoos. Nothing. I'm clean.
But the car keeps up with my pace, inching forward, and when the driver's-side window rolls down, Motown-style fast piano pours out. Around here, everybody knows KRLA. 1110 AM on the radio dial. People love their oldies around here. The opening bit of "Run, Run, Run" by the Supremes is going. I recognize the sax and piano.
"Hey," the driver says to me over the music, "you know that homeboy Lil Mosco?"
The second I hear my little brother's street name in this stranger's mouth I start booking it back the way I came. With every step it feels like my stomach's trying to claw its way out of my body. It knows this is some serious fucking trouble.
I hear the driver laugh as he throws the car into reverse and slams on the gas. The car passes me easy, and barrels to a stop. That's when two guys get out of the front and one jumps out of the bed in the back. Three guys all dressed up in black.
My adrenaline's all the way up now. I must be more alert than I ever been in my life and I know if I make it out of this, I need to remember as much as possible, so I turn my head and look while I'm running and try to memorize everything. It's a Ford, this car. Dark blue. I think it's a Ranchero. It has a taillight out. Left side.
I can't make the plate number because I'm turning my head as I take the corner back onto the Boardwalk, and I'm breaking between houses, trying to bust out onto the next street, hop a fence, and disappear into somebody's yard, but they're on me too fast. All three of them. They haven't worked ten hours over a grill, serving tacos to a bunch of damn kids and drunks. They're not tired. They're strong.
I hear them coming up hard behind as blood thumps up in my ears, and I know I'm as good as caught, man. I get one cold second to gulp air and brace myself before they swoop in, kick me off my feet, and smash me in the jaw with something hard as I fall. After that, shit goes black for I-don't-know-how-long.
I been hit in the mouth before but never like that. I come to as they're dragging me back to the car and it feels like my face is going to fall apart in two pieces. Around the ringing in my ears, I hear my boot heels slide-grinding over the asphalt and I figure I couldn't have been out for more than a few seconds.
"Don't do this." I hear myself say the words. It surprises me how calm they are, considering my heart is going a million beats per minute. "Please. I didn't do anything to you. I have money. Whatever you want."
They respond, these three, but not with words. Rough hands jerk me up to my feet, out of the Boardwalk and into the back alley with garages on both sides. But they're just setting me up.
Quick, weak punches hit me in my kidneys, my stomach, my ribs too. I get it from all angles. They don't feel hard but they steal my breath away. At first, I don't understand, but then I see the blood, and I stare at it on my shirt, and as I'm wondering why I didn't feel the stabs, a bat hits me.
I see a flash of black a second before it lands and flinch away. The heavy part only gets me in the shoulder, but I go from being upright and looking at my shirt to flat on my back and staring at the night sky. Damn.
"Yeah," one of them screams in my face, "yeah, motherfucker!"
I crumple up into a ball, my jaw feeling like somebody's frying it up in a pan. I bring my hands up and protect my face but it doesn't help. The bat comes down again and again. I catch one in the neck and my whole body goes numb.
A different voice says, "Tie that shit off while he's flat like that."
I can't hardly breathe.
Another voice, maybe it's the first voice, joins in, "Yeah, do it if you so big, Joker!"
One's named Joker. I need to remember that, I think. This's important information. Joker. The word sticks in my brain and I turn it over. I don't know any Jokers except for comic books, and it doesn't make any kind of sense why they're after me and not my brother if he did some stupid shit again.
"Please," I say when my breath comes back, as if a plea ever worked on these monsters in their whole lives. No way. They're too busy yanking my ankles away from me, but I'm so numb I can't even tell which one. Beneath me, my legs just get tight.
"There it is," one of them says.
As I open my eyes, I think, There what is? All around, I see a neighborhood I recognize. For a second, I think I'm safe when I hear them walk away and I see the brake lights of their car turn the garages around me red. Relief sinks into me. They're leaving, I think. They're leaving! That's when I see a little boy, maybe twelve years old, hiding in the Boardwalk. His face goes red in the brake lights and I see, yeah, he's looking at me. His eyes are all big though. His look messes with me so much that I follow his gaze down my body to my feet and I almost throw up when I see both my ankles tied to the back of the car with heavy wire.
I pull hard, but the wire doesn't loosen, it just cuts into my skin. I kick out with all the strength I got left but nothing happens. Nothing shifts. I struggle to get my fingers down to it, to push it off somehow.
But then the car's engine goes and I get smashed flat and dragged, the speed sending my skull skidding over the asphalt. Air rushes over me fast and every bit of skin on my back feels like it's going up in flames when the car smacks its brakes hard.
Momentum throws me forward. Ten feet? Twenty? I must bounce because I go airborne before something hard and cold like metal smashes me in the face, and this time I feel my cheek break. I actually feel it give from the inside, the way its crack echoes in my ears, the bone giving and blood gushing onto my tongue. I turn my head, open my mouth, and let it go. When I hear it hit the street, when it doesn't stop dripping, I know it's over.
I know I'm done.
Maybe I had a chance before, but not now.
A voice from the car, I don't know which, shouts, "Grab that wire up, fool, and make sure that motherfucker's dead!"
A door opens, but I don't hear it close. I hear footsteps coming close, and then there's a shape looming over me, checking to see if I'm breathing.
I don't even think. I spit as hard as I can.
It must land because I hear a quick scuffle and the shape moves back.
"Jesus," it says. "I got his fucking blood in my mouth! Are you tryna give me AIDS or something?"
Right then I wish I had AIDS just so I could give it out! I try opening my eyes wider. Only my right opens. I see the shape put something in its mouth and then I see it sneer at me and show teeth. Then the shape's on top of me, so fast I don't even know what's happening, but he's punching me hard three times in the chest. I don't feel the knife at first but I know he has one from the sounds, from the way it takes my breath out with it. There's this hollow thumping as he pushes it in deep. As deep as a knife can go.
"Tell your brother we coming." He whispers it like my ma whispers when she's ma at you in church. Quiet mad.
The one giving orders from the car yells out, "People are watching, fool!"
Excerpted from All Involved by Ryan Gattis. Copyright © 2015 Ryan Gattis. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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