1986 – Wilmington, Southern Los Angeles
That was then … *
“Admit it, David—you saw your no-good brother steal that car.”
Gray light filtered into the room, and the smoke from the Detective’s cigarette seemed to add to the general murk in his coffin-sized office. David Reese did not look up. He already knew very well what he would see and he did not wish to see those small, cold eyes of Detective Felt.
In fact, none of the kids who were caught by Harvey Felt wished to ever sit in The Chair again—or the ‘Electric Chair’ as his colleagues referred to it, exchanging knowing glances over their stale coffee when he hauled a new underage suspect into his office for questioning.
The A/C had broken long ago and the smell of old cigarette buds from the pool of ash in Felt’s mud-brown tray at the center of his metal desk appeared to have seeped into every nook and cranny on the wallpaper. It seemed as well to have seeped into the ruffled papers sticking out from black file folders, and even into Felt’s half-open shirt. He didn’t seem to care—about that or anything else except getting another little trophy.
David had to fight himself not to hyperventilate, to look calm.
Fight, fight, fight …
“Come on, David,” Felt pressed, with the same determination as a construction worker turning a screw until it absolutely cannot be tightened anymore. “– Jonathan does not deserve your loyalty. You were the lookout. You saw everything. It’s that simple. Admit it.”
“I didn’t see shit …” David said, arms still crossed tight, eyes still locked on the floor.
“I’m not lying—!”
Felt heaved himself up from his creaking chair. He walked past the desk to look David directly in the eyes.
“Well, kid, you might not be lying but you sure as hell ain’t tellin’ the truth!”
Felt’s fat sweaty hand suddenly clamped down hard on David’s shoulder. He leaned very close to David, who stared hard at the dirty carpet on the floor.
“—You think you know what it’s like to be tough,” Felt rasped. “You think you can come in here and just shrug because you’re underage. Well, I got news for you, sonny. Your brother’s going to prison. He already got a record. And you saw him take that car, because you were watching out for him – weren’t you?”
“I didn’t see anything,” David repeated, clenching his teeth.
“Oh, didn’t you?” Felt growled, leaning so close David could smell that he had been drinking something. It smelled like his father’s breath too often did.
Felt was keenly aware of David’s edginess. He smiled a bit: “I know a liar when I see one, David. Your brother stole that car and that’s why we caught him running away from it, after the chase.”
“It was Sim,” David tried again.
“So you keep sayin’ … So you keep sayin’…” Felt shrugged, but not as if he meant anything by it. Then his voice grew colder: “Sim was nowhere near that car. Otherwise we would’ve caught him, too, don’cha think?”
“What do I know what you think I think?”
“Don’t play smart with me, boy!”
“I’m not. I’m telling the truth. My brother didn’t steal that car.”
“He did. And you saw it all on your little guard post and if you don’t admit it—David, I’m not sure you fully appreciate the consequences. You see, you already got quite a record, too.”
“You should. He’s heading for prison next. At this is what he deserves. He got a lot of chances because he was young but this time he is going to do time.”
“He didn’t steal that car!”
If Felt noticed this peep from David, he didn’t show it. He lit another cigarette and thoughtfully watched the first few skull-like wisps of smoke dissipate:
“He did steal the car, David. And you know it because you were there to make sure he got away with it.”
“I was not. And you can’t prove I was!”
Felt looked like he was going to laugh so hard he could have swallowed his stinking cigarette. Unfortunately, David thought, he didn’t.
“We got ourselves plenty of circumstantial evidence, kid. Too bad you didn’t see that guard – Mr. Shrum – at the laundry, or perhaps you had forgotten to check this time? Well, he was there. The whole time – saw you loitering at that corner where you got a nice and clean view of the street before Mr. Barnham’s house. Nice and clean, yeah—for exactly 15 minutes before your brother jerked the car door open, did his little trick with the ignition and drove away. All professional, I might say. He sure has the expertise.”
“I had to … get some laundry for my dad.”
“Your old man doesn’t use a laundry this far away, does he? There are plenty closer to his dump in South Bay than—but then again, I guess he is too busy to get his pants cleaned, isn’t he? We’ve been trying for two hours now to get hold of him.”
“On a Saturday afternoon? Kid, you fucking crack me up!”
David closed his eyes. He knew the noose was tightening. He could almost feel it. Like the stinging smoke from Felt’s Marlboros became solid, entwined itself around his throat.
He could be defiant all he wanted to. Felt wasn’t going anywhere and neither was he. But he was not going to say anything that could get Jon into prison. Maybe Jon had been caught too many times. Maybe Jon was old enough to get a more severe sentence. What did David know? He never cared shit for that. He just wanted Jon to … well, not to leave him at home, he guessed. Not that dad beat him or anything. Well, maybe once or twice, but then again, they had been pretty stupid to play around that huge, rusty oil pump. They had gotten what they deserved, hadn’t they?
It had been before he was old enough to take to the streets with Jon. It had been when their best, most dangerous time together was at the pump. They first used to pretend the oil pump jack near their house was a dinosaur, and sometimes it would make noise and even sound like a dinosaur.
And the monster had to be challenged: So they would jump the chain-link fence around the oil pump jack, next to their yard, and then head over to the pump and put discarded beer bottles on the platform and wait for one of the arms to crush it. Once they had come out and saw that a dog had been squashed under there.
It had been David’s first meeting with death. He dreamed about the pinkish-bloody guts, spilled out from the stomach of the skinny street mutt for the better part of a month. His second meeting came a day or so after, when he slipped and he would’ve been squashed, too, if Jon had not caught him by the jacket and pulled him to the side. He had dreamed about that for longer. He had cried out because when you are five years old such dreams don’t go away by themselves.
Only Jon had been there to talk to him, all the times when he couldn’t sleep.
Dad had been out.
“Just take your time, David,” he heard Felt’s voice say, from somewhere that suddenly seemed far away. “I know it’s hard, but your brother doesn’t deserve your protection. And I would hate to see you taken away from your father but I’m afraid if you insist on being stubborn, there’s not much more I can do for you.”
David felt it again: The tightening around the throat, but he was not going to tell on Jon. Maybe Jon had done something stupid. However, his brother was not going to prison. He was not.
David had often wondered what it felt like to be ready to die and to have made a decision so steadfast that if you had to go through with it then you would surely die.
“…counselor might blabber otherwise. But don’t think that he’s gonna help—”
Felt’s combination of threats and bait seemed to recede even more. Perhaps it was all as it should be. If he was going to be taken away from home because he didn’t want to tell on Jon or because of something else that Felt had on him, real or invented, did anything matter anymore?
Not words, certainly. He should have been listening attentively, trying to find some way out—some clue in what Felt was saying to how he could get out of this one without betraying Jon. There wasn’t any and he knew it. There was just the tightening around his neck.
It wasn’t a particularly cool way to end his youth. It wasn’t as in those tales dad would sometimes come up with (or cook up?) when hard pressed, when he was in one of his less depressive moods.
… About how grandmother had been a real Cherokee and how they all had real warrior’s blood in them. It was hard to trust, though, wasn’t it? He had never met grandmother, either, and she seemed as much a fairytale creature to him as anyone. They had left Louisiana and mother when he was only three years old because of the break-up.
They had ended up here in Wilmington, living next to a monster of an oil-pump. They were close to the Pacific and he loved going down to the harbor, just sit and watch the water, trying to imagine what it would be like to go all the way to the horizon. He wished it were visible from their house, which was less than a mile away, but from his and Jon’s bedroom window the sea was obscured by cranes, factory pipes and the towers of rusty freighters.
However, when he was old enough he would stow away on a ship. That was the plan.
He wasn’t sure why it had to be the plan, only that he needed to do it, because it would get him away from Wilmington. He hadn’t even overheard tales from the sailors or anything like that. There was just a strong sense in David that … something awaited out there, which was better, than whatever he could find in L.A. He didn’t even consider going over land instead, because to him it was just desert or prairie, maybe mountains, and when it wasn’t that it was just another big city that he imagined would be like this one. But the places he couldn’t imagine, on the other side of the ocean, they allowed him to hope exactly because he didn’t know what they would be like.
He would fight for his chance to get on one of those ships—one day. In fact, if you didn’t know what it was like to fight, how could you be anyone else but John Reese – blowing your rather generous harbor worker paycheck on the booze, the horses on the Alomitos racetrack and sometimes on those women but seldom on a new pair of shoes for your 13-year old son?
“—You know that your loyalty shouldn’t be with that brother of yours … “
Something dawned in David’s mind, as Felt’s repetitions now became completely opaque, like the ghostly smoke that now seemed to permanently glue to the big, fat detective, wherever he paced back and forth in the room. Strange … David had never seen it so clearly until now: His father was an okay man, maybe.
But he was not a fighter.
David could be a fighter, though. He could somehow delete that part of their family record, which felt heavier in his heart than any record Felt had on him. He could throw out an invisible line to grandmother whose tribe had had that clash with the police when they were to be moved to a poorer reservation and who had almost died herself when the cops beat her and did who knows what afterward.
He could be like grandfather, who had quit his job in that store that sold goods to the tribe at the border and then taken her to his home in Lafayette to start over. He could be like his great-grandfather who came from a white family that had owned the largest number of slaves in Louisiana until 1865, and had some prominent members of the Klan after that, but who now didn’t hesitate to supply the mixed couple with money.
Yes, there were all kinds of warriors in his family. Maybe dad invented a part of it. Maybe dad didn’t really know all of it, but—David decided right there and then—some of it was truth. And he wanted to continue that truth.
Even if he had to make it up.
He only just managed to relish that last thought, the warmth it gave him, when he suddenly looked straight into Felt’s puffy, unshaven kisser. The police officer had obviously lost patience and had now grabbed both handles of the ‘Electric Chair’, right in front of David, like a big wall of sweaty skin and cigarette breath.
“You’re not listening to what I’m saying’, David Reese.”
“I … am.”
“No, you are not and that – ” his bloodshot eyes suddenly became slightly, awkwardly sympathetic “ – that is not a good thing, because if you are not listening you are not cooperating and if you are not cooperating then I can’t help you anymore. One last chance:
Tell me how you saw your brother steal that Chevy Nova. Then you can go home. ”
Suddenly it was all clear.
Somewhere in the distance, somewhere outside the bars of the nicotine-greased blinders, he could not see the hard contours of the nearby concrete blocks stand out against the decaying sunlight anymore.
He could not see the jagged silhouettes of the harbor cranes, like dead metal trees along the docks.
He could not hear the constant whooshes of cars droning by out on Gibson Boulevard.
He could not feel the hardness of the ‘Electric Chair’, nor the spindly, stinking smoke from of Felt’s cigarettes.
Only one thing was clear:
Along a creek, somewhere … perhaps back in Louisiana, although he had been too young to remember, there was a man, looking for something in the water.
David saw him clearly now. The man was a Cherokee.
The man stood up, turned, and … looked straight at David.
“I did it,” David then said. “I stole the car.”
Felt’s eyes narrowed. For a long time he said nothing, then:
“You can’t drive.”
“I can. Do you want to see me do it?”
“You were on the lookout. The laundry guard saw you.”
“He saw shit. I know where I was. He didn’t see what I was doing after we went across the street and took that car. Jon … wasn’t with me, but we planned to meet up later. I did it for him. And we met up where we agreed to.”
“Jonathan was caught running away from that fine old Chevy – only one block away from it. The patrol car had spotted it 10 seconds before it spotted him. We found some of his ‘tools’ in the car.”
“I borrowed them.”
“Bullshit … The officers didn’t see you at all – before they caught you in the other street, right after big bro had been netted. You were running for home.”
“I was running away from the car – but in the opposite direction. Do you think we’re stupid?!”
“I don’t know what to think: So you’re saying your brother was not in the car – at all. He was waiting for you to ditch it? Bullshit. Even if you had been able to drive that car there would at least have been prints and – ”
Something snapped inside David: “I was wearing mittens, you f– !” he blurted. “ – I always wear mittens!”
Felt looked as if he was an executioner just about to swing the ax and then the pathetic sod on the scaffold had pulled a yellow rabbit out of his ass.
Once again, he leaned very close to David, and now some ancestral part of David Reese was not in doubt anymore. Those reddish veins, clawing at the rim of Felt’s eyeballs, were the same that a Lakota squaw had seen in the bloodshot eyes of a US cavalryman at Wounded Knee, before the soldier had put a bullet through her head and thought no more of it.
“Awright, kid,” Felt concluded chillingly: “You insist on taking the blame for your no-good brother, I’ll make sure you take the blame – even though your testimony is all over the place. You see, I don’t believe in self-sacrifice. I only believe in consequences. And you might as well get a preview …”
This is now…
“And what exactly are you trying to tell me with that story … officer?”
Jonathan Reese had heard the word ‘officer’ pronounced many times, but seldom with so much venom as what the young fellow in front of him had just spit out.
It was a blistering hot day in Yuma, as if the heat was cutting into your skin; same as when you come too close to an open oven. It had not been nearly as hot that day, Jon thought – that day almost 25 years ago, in a dark office of a bitter police detective looking for a way, any way, to choke his brother without actually touching him. After all, weeds had better be killed before they grow bigger, hadn’t they?
Jonathan Reese didn’t see David Guerrero as a ‘weed’, though.
On the contrary, the 19-something Latino was handsome by any standard, if perhaps a bit on the slick side. His faded red t-shirt and tattered jeans betrayed his position in the hierarchy, though, but that’s the way it was with all of the youngsters who stayed here in town, wasn’t it?
If you were of a mixed family, was there any more hope for you than if you had risked your life digging your way in – somewhere under that 600-mile fence that separated the US from another world?
No, David Guerrero had no semblance to David Reese, except in name. It had definitely not been so hot that day in Wilmington, he was sure, or … maybe it had been, if only in that particular room where the questioning had taken place.
There were many things his brother had not told him about that day. There were many things about that particular period of their lives Dave would probably never talk about, and
Jon would always have to try not to think too hard about what he would say, if Dave ever opened up about it.
Jon leaned back in his ergonomically designed office chair. It was new and the leather was clean; it would, he hoped, be enough to keep his back working for ten years more. Five would also be okay.
“I’m not trying to ‘tell you’ anything, David,” he then said. “You make of my ‘story’ what you will …”
“Hey – aren’t you supposed to be off-duty now, Officer Reese?” David Guerrero asked, and again there was acid in each syllable.
“I’m supposed to at least try to do my job,” Jonathan said. “And that means taking whatever time I think is necessary to prevent young men such as you from going down the wrong lane. I don’t want to see you in prison, David.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Hey – you got nothing on me, man.”
“Was that an admission?”
“It was an admission that I’d like to go now … officer.”
Jonathan leaned slightly forward, his hands resting on the desk he had cleared half an hour ago, when Joyce had told him David Guerrero was here, asking about his brother who was in custody.
“I know what you are doing … out there,” Jonathan said quietly. “But yes, I don’t have anything to charge you with yet, and even if I had I might want to give you another chance, like my brother once gave me a second chance.”
“He did time—for you?”
“He was too young, but he went to juvenile hall for half a year. Felt saw to it, even though there were many counselors who didn’t believe his little lie, either. But Felt was the kind of man you didn’t play hero in front of.”
“Your hermano got taken away from home?”
“Oh, yeah – and our father was furious. I guess he finally woke up—and he was not the only one.”
For long seconds David Guerrero did not say anything. Then, without blinking, he concluded:
“Those kinds of fairy stories don’t really do nothing for me, man. Can I go now?”
Jonathan felt something strain across his eyes:
“Yes, David – you can go now.”
The young Latino got up, swiftly, as if he had something to do before everything closed down for siesta. At the office door, he seemed to change his mind. He turned slightly:
“You know, Officer Reese: Suppose you had gone to the slammer because your little brother had squealed on you for boosting that car …”
“Suppose I had?”
David Guerrero shrugged, as if it didn’t really matter, but the triumph in his smile said everything.
“Just saying … what does your brother do now, by the way?”
“Since you ask. He is a writer.”
“Really?” David Guerrero looked as if he wanted to roll his eyes but thought the better of it. “And what does he do to make a buck?”
“Dave … does the cleaning at a medical research lab. Nights. In Philadelphia.”
“—He does that, eh? And you get paid shit for sitting here after 6 PM and talking to guys like me, when you are not out at the border trying to shoot drug dealers – or avoid getting shot yourself. Oh, wow … you two sure got it made.”
Then he briefly fondled the golden chain around his wrist; the chain Jon had not asked him about. Not this time. And then David Guerrero was gone. The door to the hallway at the Yuma police station was still open.
Jon did not go after him. He punched the space bar on his laptop and the screen came alive again.
Then he opened the next file on the next young man, who, he knew, would soon be sent in here, like David Guerrero, and say the same things and go out again, not giving a damn until it was too late, just looking forward to telling all his friends about the ‘fucking stupid cop’. It would never stop.
But he fought on.
If I let myself go
And for where I just don’t know
I’d maybe hit some cold new river
That led out to the sea
An unknown sea
I’d either swim or I’d drown
With gratitude to Michael Shrum.
Last edited 20 November 2013