Monday, March 23, 2009

At The Bottom: Desperate Measures

Jesus Cortez
He stood on the corner, with the same workers he had advocated for at one point— now he was one of them.

"Damn, it’s already noon, and nothing…" remarked Bruno.

"Is okei my fren, tomorro," responded an older man in broken English.

Bruno wondered why his education had not paid off yet, but this made him understand the stories he had heard once at the same corner: he had met ex-rebels from El Salvador, teachers from Mexico, doctors from Guatemala— all waiting for someone, anyone to pick them up and give them work for the day.

"I should head on home, there’s no way I’m getting work for today" he thought to himself as he placed his hands in the empty pockets of his khaki pants. The afternoon had turned cold, and he felt it through his worn-out white shoes and his thin grey sweatshirt.

As he arrived at his apartment complex, he read the graffiti on the walls; some names he still recognized, others were new to him. He thought about the days when he would roam the streets with his friends and his then-girlfriend— at that time his pockets were full and he felt invincible. He walked past the young men with baggy pants, white t-shirts and tattoos. As he approached his apartment door, he could hear Etta James’ song "Fool That I Am", and his daughter’s laughter—he could also smell the scent of beans. Before he could open the door completely, his daughter ran to his arms.

"Daddy!" she said, as his mother turned with a smile. She always smiled.

"Any luck today, son?" she asked with a grin.

"No Momma, not a damn thing" he said frustrated, as he rubbed his bald head. His brown eyes began to water, but before he could cry, his mother gave him a stern look.

"Don’t you dare cry, Bruno Gonzalez," she finally said.

"Okay, okay. Not in front of my baby" he said, and he picked up his three-year-old daughter.

"So, what did you do today little Xochitl?" he asked her. She responded and kept talking for hours; that was his favorite part of the day and the only thing that brought Bruno peace of mind.

Later that night, after tucking his daughter in, he had a conversation with his mother.

"How much money do we have, Mom?" he asked with a worried look on his face.

"Not much. Maybe for another week, but after that we still gotta pay the rent," she responded, as she ran her finger down a list.

"Damn, if that stupid woman had not taken all our savings, we would be alright!" A tear fell from his eye and rolled down his cheek and onto his mustache—he wiped it off. Bruno missed her more than he hated her for leaving him for his cousin. His mother turned on the radio and they listened to a few more songs by Etta James—"At Last" and "I’d Rather Go Blind"—then they were both silent.

"It’s gonna be alright mi’jo, don’t worry" she said soothingly, as she stroked his wet cheek.

The next morning, he got up early, got dressed in the same clothes, and drank his coffee—he was ready to keep searching for work. He trusted his mother, and if she said things would be okay, he had no reason to doubt her words.

As he stepped out of his apartment, he heard a voice call out "Psycho!" At first he thought it was the chilling wind blowing, or maybe he was just hearing things, but soon after, another young man appeared near the gate to the apartment complex.

"What, you can’t recognize an old friend or what, punk?" said the young man as he approached Bruno. Bruno had not recognized his old friend Andy. As soon as they were close enough, they shook hands and embraced.

"Take a ride with me," Andy said as he wrapped his arm around Bruno’s neck.

"Nah man, I have to look for work. I’m almost out of money, my kid needs food and the rent has to get paid," responded Bruno.

Andy insisted; he had just purchased a 1965 black Chevy Impala in mint condition and he wanted to take Bruno out for a ride. Andy knew that Bruno had been going through a rough situation lately, and he wanted to help. In the car, Bruno saw Daniel, his other close friend, and smiled.

"What’s up foo’, aren’t you gonna say wassup, or what?" Bruno said as Daniel stepped out of the car. Daniel was a giant in height compared to Bruno who was only 5’2 tall. When he got out of the car Bruno had to step back to make room. He greeted Bruno as he did in the old days—by play fighting.

Finally the three got in the car; Bruno sat in the backseat. They drove around the city for a couple of hours, listening to funk, Hip Hop and oldies, while Bruno looked out the window, thinking about his daughter and the things he should be doing. Bruno told Andy to turn up the volume when they played Tupac and Scarface’s song, "Smile". Bruno especially liked the introduction,

There’s gonna be some stuff you gonna see that’s gonna make it hard to smile in the future, but through whatever you see, through all the rain and the pain, you gotta keep your sense of humor, you gotta be able to smile through all this bullshit.

They made a stop at their favorite taco shop. Bruno had not tasted tacos in weeks, not since his daughter’s mother had left him. After a few hours of eating and talking, they got in the car again and drove around some more. In the evening, they took Bruno to their favorite bar.

There, they met up with another old friend who had just been released from prison after two years.

"Damn, when did you get out, foo’?" asked Bruno in disbelief.

"Last week," responded his friend. He had been drinking for a few hours, so he was already a bit drunk. "I hear you have some financial problems, ese."

"I’ll be alright Stranger, don’t even trip. It’s good to see you foo’. It’s been a while," responded Bruno.

"So, how’s college, you still going or what, eh?" asked Stranger.

"Nah, I had to quit for this semester… gotta take care of my little girl and my momma you know," responded Bruno as he took a sip of a beer his friends had bought him. He was only 19, but he had been going into bars since 17—his thick mustache made him look older than he was.

"I might be able to help you out, ese," said Stranger, as he sat on a stool stroking his thick mustache and beard, "but let’s go play pool and we’ll talk about it".

Bruno worried; the last time Stranger had tried to help, he ended up leaving the state for a few months, Daniel had gotten shot, Andy had left to Mexico and Stranger had ended up in prison serving two years in Susanville State Penitentiary. But they went ahead and played pool, as Andy and Daniel watched and cracked jokes. They talked about old times, when all it took was the four of them to control the neighborhood.

"Hey foo’, remember when we messed up that foo’ Robert?" asked Andy, as they laughed noisily.

After a few minutes of jokes and laughter, Stranger said "I might have a way for all of us to get paid".

They all knew this might be a bad idea, especially Bruno, but he was desperate for money. He had done some terrible things in his life, and did not want to go back to that lifestyle.

"I’ve seen you on the corner with the day laborers, foo’. You shouldn’t have to struggle that much, man. I’m telling you, just listen to my idea," said a drunken Stranger. "Okay, let’s hear it," said a not-so-convinced Bruno.

Stranger’s idea was to break into the neighborhood’s drug connection and rob it. Bruno thought Stranger was crazy. He knew who was in control of the drug connection, and though he was not afraid, he thought it a bad idea. They argued for a few minutes, but Bruno’s desperation was incredible. He finally agreed—he imagined himself driving around in a nicer car, not his mother’s beat up Monte Carlo, and imagined buying some nice clothes for his daughter, and paying the rent for a few months.

"Alright, I’m down" he finally said. "When and who else is rollin’?" he added. "Just us four, like the old days. We got everything ready, and a sawed-off shotgun, especially for you—like the old days," said Stranger. Everything was prepared for the robbery, because the job had to be done that same night. It was the end of the month, and they knew that the connection had taken advantage of pay day in the neighborhood.

"Go home, change, and meet us in front of your apartments, in 20 minutes" Stranger commanded.

Bruno went home, but said nothing to his mother. He ran into his room and changed into his black pants, black hooded sweater, black Nike Cortez; he put a black bandana in his pocket. He kissed his daughter, with a tear in his eye, but hoping his actions would lead to a better life. His mother questioned him. She asked him what his hurry was.

All he said was, "Nothing Momma, it’s gonna be alright," and left.

When he arrived at the front of his apartment, his friends were already there in Andy’s car.
They sped off and soon were on the same street where the drug connection was. "It’s that house." Stranger pointed across the street from where they were parked. As they sat in the car, they downed 40oz of beer, Stranger snorted cocaine, and Andy and Daniel smoked marijuana—Bruno just drank, and held the shotgun close to his chest. Many thoughts went through his mind, especially how long it had been since he had last used it. He thought about his mother, how disappointed she would be and about his daughter, but he decided to think about his ex and his cousin to get mad and more willing to go through with the robbery.

"Are you foos’ ready, or what?" questioned Stranger.

"Simón," was the automatic response from everyone.

They stepped out of the car quietly. They could hear Spanish music coming from the house, but no one was outside. They thought this would make the job easier. They walked quietly across the street: Bruno with the shotgun, Andy with a nine millimeter automatic revolver, Stranger with an AK-47, and Manuel with a Smith and Wesson .380.

They knocked on the door, and when it opened, a drunken man appeared. Stranger pointed the rifle to his chest and told him not to make a sound. They all walked in with their bandanas covering their faces and pointing their guns in different directions.

"Nobody make a damn move!" they all said.

As they walked in, they looked around and saw bags of money, and drugs. They didn’t care for the drugs, but they were overwhelmed by the amount of money. Three women came from the kitchen and were told to stay quiet. Two men came from the bathroom and were hit with Bruno’s shotgun on their heads.

"Get the money foo’, hurry up!" said Stranger as Bruno grabbed the bags of money.

"Where’s the rest?" asked Daniel as he pistol-whipped a man who had white dust on his nose. He finally told him where the rest of the money was. Soon, they had three bags full of money all together.

"Tie them up," Andy said to Stranger.

They had the money and all the dealers were tied up.

"You go first and turn the car around," said Stranger calmly.

Andy walked out the door, started the car and brought it around. Bruno, Stranger and Daniel ran out of the house with the money and jumped into the car. They sped off and got lost in the foggy night and city lights.

As they sped off, a young man had been peaking through his window, a friend of the drug dealers—he had seen all of their faces. ¶

No comments: