As tough as Gaspar was, he lay shaken awake by the starry bursts of night in the east city. Rice Krispies, he thought. Ratatats of drive-by shootings. Snap. Crackle. Pop. Over and over. Within seconds tires screeched around the corner waking the babies of all the teen mamas on P Street. They wailed at their little ones for silence. Stupid, mi hijo. It’s just a fucking car. Stupid fucking baby. You don’t even know what you’re crying at. Most nights Gaspar would rather be out in the dark, ducking around houses, far from all the babies and mamas, smoking with his friends in the alley. Not tonight. He sat up watching a Monte Carlo driving past the house and was glad he wasn’t walking alongside it. Was the shooter in the car? He would have mouthed off to the driver. Probably would have died a real hero. The muffler vibrated his bed. Hydraulics popped and wheezed. The driver, the shape of smoke, had surer eyes than the flickering retina of summer’s Venus. The glint of his stare felt like a night eagle clawing Gaspar’s liver. Who did the car belong to? No one ever seemed to give a straight answer. Gooch Barra said it was his cousin’s friend from four streets over. Beany said it was Pooky Gomez, a gangbanger from Tulare who was hiding out in Bakersfield after robbing a Popeye’s Chicken with a switchblade. No matter who was driving, Gaspar thought it was a shitty car, which he argued about with his dad at dinner the next night.
“Some lowriders don’t have decent hydraulics,” Gaspar said, burning his fingers on a tortilla just off the skillet.
His mom always talked as if he was in trouble. “I told you those were warm,” she said, heating another.
Gaspar’s dad joined in. “You don’t want a lowrider. Those cars get terrible gas mileage. Besides, you’re only eleven.”
“He doesn’t want a car,” his mom said.
“I don’t think he drives it far,” Gaspar said. “He just goes in circles around the block staring at everyone.”
“Maybe he’s the one firing off his gun in the middle of the night.” His mom was frowning hard now. It wasn’t just her smoking that caused all those creases to spider across her cheeks. She was beautiful once. The way many girls are before the oppression starts.
Gaspar’s dad took a big bite of chili verde. “He’s just looking for trouble. Don’t even look at him.”
“I don’t,” Gaspar lied. “I just look at his stupid car.”
Gaspar sure wasn’t afraid of the guy even if it was Pooky Gomez. He wasn’t afraid of any Crips, Bloods, Myfas, Kern Countys, Bulldogs, Peckerwoods or Norteños. He hated those ex-Iraq War veteran police officers who cruised California Avenue, watching him like he was carrying some IED to detonate at the ice rink or McMurtry pool. Sure he was often walking funny. But he didn’t have no bomb. He stole boxes of Ding Dongs and carried them under his shirt. He certainly wasn’t afraid of kids his age, no matter what color those putos were. He wasn’t afraid to walk to Martin Luther King Jr. Park where he and the black kids threw rocks at the windows of Emerson Junior High. He could walk all the way to Union Cemetery. Pauper’s graves lay half exposed like road kill. Dragoon soldiers’ bones were buried by the west wall. He always felt that soldiers from Fort Tejon in the mountains had worn weird uniforms. Who would want to wear blue when they marched around in yellow hills? Just a bunch of dead peckerwoods. Just gang shit, he thought. He liked to look at the soldiers’ graves. They were the oldest he’d found. He imagined he’d be buried with them one day at their hangout in the ground tipping back beer at the earthworm bars where skeletons clacked voiceless, miming their past lives.
Sometimes he walked to the Maya Theater to watch movies by himself. He wasn’t afraid to sneak into a film. He preferred the R-rated action thrillers and lots of guns. Uncle Manuel had said DeNiro was the man but all Gaspar saw in him was an old chongo who squinted too much. He didn’t want to tell anyone but he preferred the films where cops shot dudes and the dudes shot back and everyone dropped like drunks at the park onto their blankets and benches. Out for the night, you know? When he walked the streets the worst were those cops. Not the druggies. Not the sellers. The East Bakersfield drug dealers connected to the Cartel weren’t so bad. They sat on benches and said, “Good day, sir” to the whites buying mochas at the Starbucks, the ones who looked like they had money anyway. Those dealers didn’t bother Gaspar because they’d seen him run into Taco Fresco and steal twenty plastic forks from the counter dispenser. “Look at that little shit run,” they laughed.
Gaspar was only troubled about one place in the world—the one place he feared because he felt that clawing at his liver whenever he walked past. The mortuary. The goddam body factory just around the corner where his cousin Angel worked delivering stiffs.
Angel was in his early twenties. He had seven tattoos. The two on top of his head he got after Gaspar’s great grandfather Richard Lopez died, a former medic with the Big Red One. One of the tattoos was of a helmet. The other incorporated the words GRAMPS LOPEZ, and of course, all kinds of crazy blue squiggly lines that Gaspar didn’t understand. Angel told Gaspar’s dad he was hired at the mortuary because he was rough looking. That way no one would jack with him in the middle of the night when he was hauling in some corpse from the county hospital. After Angel had gotten off work early on Monday he came over the house to eat Gaspar’s mother’s menudo, a favorite in the family because of flavorful broth and pieces of tripe that tasted so good while slipping down the throat all rubbery. Gaspar noticed something was off about his cousin. He had never encountered such a smell. It was like sweat mixed with toilet bowl cleaner and that spray perfume his mom wore that she said made her smell like Sofía Vergara. He told himself if this is what the dead smell like then he never wanted to die.
“You smell funny. What’s that?” Gaspar wanted to throw up all over Angel’s ugly blue suit jacket.
Angel spooned hominy in his mouth like it was his first meal of the day. “Just some chemicals I was around at work.”
Gaspar suddenly recalled one of his favorite television shows. The one he wasn’t allowed to watch but did anyway. “Do you burn entire bodies in acid?”
Now Angel was drinking broth straight from the bowl. “What kind of freaky movies your mama been letting you watch?”
Gaspar wanted to fling a piece of hominy across the room then thought he better not. “They were cooking bodies on that TV show Mom saves in the on-demand folder.”
Angel chewed a white slice of tripe. “Dumbass. We don’t cook bodies unless in a furnace to turn them into ash. I was helping with an embalming. Do you know what that is?”
Gaspar tried to think of what an embalming could be. “Is that like a meat grinder? Uncle P-Dawg says bodies get turned into all kinds of things. But they gotta grind ‘em up first.”
Angel gave his little cousin that say what look that was popular on the street. “You really that dumb? I thought you stopped ditching school. They fill veins and shit with all this pink chemical that looks like Pepto Bismol. All the blood gets drained at the same time. It’s some sick shit but preserves the bodies longer so all the mamacitas can cry at an open casket.”
Either way it was pretty awful to Gaspar. He decided right then that when he died he wanted to be kicked into a ditch. He didn’t need any needles in his arm or that pink girly shit Angel was talking about filling him up from the inside out. He brightened just then with an idea. “Can I see a dead body?”
Gaspar’s mother answered before Angel could finish sipping from a bottle of orange-mandarin Jarritos. “Not on your life. Dead bodies will make you susceptible to spirits. I don’t want no ghosts around here unless it’s the Virgen de Guadalupe herself.”
“But Angel works there.”
Gaspar’s dad wasn’t going to have any of it either. “Just shut up and eat. Let Angel deal with his own ghosts.”
Gaspar started thinking about his great grandfather from the Big Red One. The former World War Two medic carried his keepsakes in an old tin, including letters, discharge papers, and photos of Nazi prison camps and destroyed cities. He’d set the tin on the TV. He set it on an end table. He placed it on the kitchen table when he ate, hands trembling from using them as pressure on the bleeding of hundreds of souls. The old man ate his beans like part of a long slow opera. Gaspar was pretty little when his gramps was beaten almost to death by two teenagers over the five dollars in his wallet. In the hospital he remembered his great grandfather wouldn’t talk to nobody. Everyone said he’d had enough. He just gave up. After two days lying in the medicine light he told everyone goodbye, as if suddenly realizing there’d been a different kind of war going on this entire time. And since Gaspar didn’t remember much of his great grandfather, he thought of the old man as more of an empty vessel, a speechless piece of human cargo on a conveyor belt, slipping into the mortuary through a hole in the wall, and Angel connecting all kinds of tubes just so his gramps could sleep forever in some vat of nasty girly shit and experience the after-life. Then he thought of that tin, and how he finally got to see in it and stared eye to eye with a photo the family had never seen: a Jew in a prison uniform.
Gaspar walked down California Avenue past the mortuary several times after Angel’s visit. He spied the black hearse beyond the gate. He spied Angel’s Buick in the lot next to it. He watched an old white man in a grey suit several times shuffling between buildings, always eyeing Gaspar. Once the old man even half waved. At least that’s what Gaspar wanted to think he’d done. Could have also been the sign of a gun. Maybe the old timer capped Gaspar with a thumb and forefinger. A true sign of the neighborhood.
One day Gaspar was walking slowly along the mortuary fence when his cousin Angel walked out of the back entrance in that stupid blue coat that made him look like he was a used-bone salesman. He stopped and leaned against the fence. Right away Angel came over.
“What are you doing here, little cuz?”
“Hangin’ out.” This fence wasn’t even rod-iron and there were no spikes. Gaspar knew he could climb it easy.
“I thought you hung out on P Street with Chameleon and Edgy?”
“Nah, those guys are fools.”
“Well, hey, man, it’s kind of cool seeing you here but I gotta go to pick up some vato who died in a liquor store stabbing. So I will catch you later?” He rubbed Gaspar on the head and jiggled a set of keys. “Don’t bring any ghosts home to your madre.”
Gaspar played it cool. “Nah,” he said, nodding to his cousin who drove away in a white van. After Angel left, Gaspar went to the front door of the mortuary. He decided he wasn’t afraid of the old white man. He was used to going into stores and taking shit, so he opened the door and walked right in.
Inside was a desk with a jar of candy. He pulled off the lid and started rifling through, taking the orange ones. Those were like money to the kids in the neighborhood. Edgy would pay big. He might even get a look up Rosemarie’s skirt if he could find enough for trade. Her older sister would punch Gaspar in the face if she ever found out what they’d done behind Mr. Delgado’s house.
Then came a woman’s voice. “Why are you taking all the candy?” she asked. She looked nice enough—like a schoolteacher for dead people. Her voice was smooth, a sort of inquisitive kindness he’d only heard when his father was about to beat his ass.
“I’m only taking the orange ones,” he said.
The woman’s skin was pasty. She had a scratch on her arm that shone like red neon. “Why those?” she asked.
He wondered if all she did was ask questions. He wondered if she’d been scratched by a cat or if the night eagle had swooped in. He’d stopped thinking about dead bodies but suddenly remembered there could be one just about anywhere in this place. “My cousin works here,” he said.
“You take the orange ones because your cousin works here?” she laughed.
“Yeah,” Gaspar said, feeling brave. He opened one of the candies. The slick citrus-flavored ball rolled from his tongue into his cheek. “You got a lot of dead bodies here?”
“A few recently deceased.”
Gaspar thought about her words. He felt her voice linger in the palm of time.
“Is Angel your cousin?” she asked. “He just left. Won’t be back for several hours. Maybe you can call.”
Just then came another voice, surprising Gaspar. It was the old man.
“It’s alright, Janet,” the old man said. “I’ll take over.”
“Sounds wonderful, Mr. Brown. See you later,” she said to Gaspar.
Mr. Brown wore glasses thicker than that janitor with the special beer bottle lenses. He was also skinnier than Walter Bevins, a fifth grader with a blonde fro, arms like a nimble marionette.
“How you get a name like Brown?” Gaspar asked.
“I’m Irish-American.” Mr. Brown talked like his dad’s mechanic. Like he wanted to fix something. “Never been to Ireland though. Won’t ever have an accent. I hear a lot of us have this name.”
“But it’s a color.”
“Come with me . . . What’s your name?”
“Gaspar. I’m going to show you something.”
Secretly Gaspar hoped it was a body. He didn’t want to come right out and ask although he imagined there was a big stack of dead in the next room, all carefully situated on top of each other, waiting their turn to be placed in a coffin or oven. He followed Mr. Brown, who walked a lot faster than he remembered.
“You ever see a sword?” Mr. Brown asked as they headed down a hall.
Gaspar had seen a lot of knives but never a sword. He decided to lie. “My dad has one.”
“Your dad?” Mr. Brown entered a room. Next to a window was a barrel holding about ten different swords. Some gleamed. Others were dull, cracked. “Do you know why I have swords in here?”
Gaspar shrugged. He could only imagine how bodies got dragged from room to room.
“Go ahead. Pick one up.”
Gaspar found a sword that was a little shorter than the rest. He pulled it out, gripped the handle. The blade wasn’t too sharp or heavy. It seemed old, beaten, thrown around. Weird etchings marked the blade. He took a step back, jabbed the air. He imagined what his friends would think. Beany would be jealous if he brought a sword to school. So would all the kids in the neighborhood. Edgy and Chameleon would want to take it and stab the cat with the one-eye but he wouldn’t let them. He liked that cat and didn’t see why so many kids picked on the sad creature. It was the neighborhood cat. A part of their life. He quickly wondered how he could hide the sword from his parents. Would they even care? He swung the sword around a few more times.
“Here, let me see that,” Mr. Brown said. He examined the blade just as Gaspar had, running his fingers across the dull metal. “Yep. I use this one to kill niggers.”
Gaspar stepped back. Was the old man crazy? He thought about running but his feet were frozen to the wood floor.
“You a good kid, Gaspar?” Mr. Brown asked. “You don’t hang out with niggers do you? One thing I don’t like is all these blacks in the neighborhood. I can deal with Mexicans. That’s why I have your cousin working for me. But these blacks. They’re no good. Angel doesn’t have a nigger girlfriend does he? Cause if he does . . .”
Gaspar tried to think if he’d ever even seen Angel with a girl, any girl. “I don’t think so,” he said.
Mr. Brown looked out the window. He stared as if he could see someone he didn’t like. “Ain’t enough of them dyin’,” he said, still holding the sword. “Always someone dyin’ though. That’s the business.”
Gaspar was afraid. He didn’t know if Mr. Brown took people in this room to cut off their arms and legs. “You don’t really kill people with that, do you?” he asked.
Mr. Brown got a kind of smile that Gaspar didn’t understand. “You mean, do I kill Mexicans?” Mr. Brown cleared his throat, which nearly started a coughing fit. “No, Gaspar. I don’t kill Mexicans. But do yourself a favor. Don’t you talk to those niggers. You hear me?”
Gaspar nodded. “I gotta go,” he said, suddenly remembering that he had to piss really bad. He ran past the old man down the hall and into the lobby. Janet wasn’t there when he passed the candy dish. He didn’t stop to pick up any more orange candies or to put back the ones he took. He walked straight out past the garden, past the fence, past the lot with the hearse, went home, pissed a bucketful, and late that night imagined Mr. Brown stabbing all the black kids on the street with his sword collection. Tossing in his bed he thought about Marcus Daniels, a reformed gangbanger who ran away from the cops and was shot in the head crawling toward the barrel of a handgun. It was all over the news. Now he imagined Mr. Brown was there. He thought about Betty May, a black woman who died in her sleep last month. He wondered where her body disappeared to and whether or not Mr. Brown had got to her while she was sleeping.
In the morning Gaspar didn’t feel as bad. He didn’t realize it at the time but imagination had a way of grabbing him and not letting go while it was still dark out. He wondered why he’d been so afraid. On his way to school he didn’t see any sign of the old man. Just the same white cops. The same Monte Carlo. The same vatos by Central-Cali market drinking beer and buying weed off the black gangbangers. The same kids were kicking bottles in the alley before high-tailing it to school.
At school he saw his friend Clayton hanging out by one of the classrooms. He told Clayton everything Mr. Brown said.
Clayton was a head taller than Gaspar and though he was a nice kid he got angry when he heard what Mr. Brown had said to Gaspar.
“Your cousin Angel is a fool,” Clayton said.
Gaspar hadn’t thought about Angel. What had his cousin done? He wasn’t even there. It was Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown pointed the sword.
“He ain’t like that,” Gaspar said.
“Aw, whatever, man,” Clayton said, snapping his tongue.
That night Gaspar opened the screen to his window. He climbed into the dry darkness through the broken rod-iron. What set Gaspar’s house apart from the others was that his dad was talked into building a rod-iron fence and gate to match the window bars. Ornamental, twisty with curling shapes bent into white leaves and semi-circles, it was the most decorative house on the block. And since his mom collected cement statues, there were plenty of squirrels, frogs, turtles and dogs to guard the house like rabid familiars. Anyone trying to enter or escape the yard by climbing over the fence ran the risk of slipping onto a spike, also made of rod-iron. Gaspar squeezed between the spikes, tempting them to stab him in the thigh. He imagined his dad in the darkness, yelling down the driveway, “Gaspar, you get down. Your cousin Tony got stabbed once and he didn’t like it. Just go to the cemetery and ask him.”
Above him, several tiny bats flittered, barely larger than the tomato worm moths that crashed headfirst into the streetlights. He walked beneath them and up the street, past the yelling from Beany’s house, past the bums sitting at the alley entrance getting high. Tires squealed past and a beer can sailed onto the street from the Monte Carlo. Laughter echoed as Gaspar cursed Pooky Gomez. Up ahead was Central-Cali Deli & Grocery. He stopped and leaned on a sidewalk post, pretending he was just hanging out. Three blacks outside nodded to two cholos who were entering the store. Money passed hands on their way out. Baggies went into pockets. Gaspar watched the blacks talking to each other. They were watching him too. Gaspar didn’t want the cops to catch him so he left for another alley at the back of the store. He hoped to find one of his friends smoking or drinking.
“Hey, boy,” came a voice. “Where you goin’?”
“Nowhere,” Gaspar said. He could hardly see in the dark. Shadows were stacked on top of shadows. He could smell weed all over the shadow’s clothes.
“What you doin’ around here?” the voice asked. This time there was a hint of chin, thick shoulders.
“I dunno,” Gaspar said.
“You Clayton’s friend?”
“I thought that was you. Then you better get home.”
“You just go home.” He gave Gaspar a joint. “Forget you talked to me.”
Gaspar thought about lighting the joint and hiding behind a trash bin. He thought about going home, climbing between the white spikes on the fence back through his window into bed. He wanted to sleep but there was a restlessness in him, an uncertainty that he could only find in the night. He thought about going to the mortuary but knew that was a dangerous place. He thought about Angel, Janet and Mr. Brown. He thought about the old man’s swords. What kind of pirate ships were they from? Had they been stolen from the dragoon’s buried in the cemetery? Suddenly he saw fires flickering off clouds. Or was that smoke? Then came running, yelling, distant sirens. The mortuary must have really been going up. He imagined Mr. Brown burning up and Angel lying there with the same wound as Tony who had been stabbed up through his ribcage. Gaspar walked away from the store and eventually entered the alley partially blocked by bums and their carts. They tried talking to him. “Kid, what you got in your pocket?” one asked. They laughed and he continued down the never-ending alley. A loudness came from car horns, voices and the crack of night tearing through the neighborhood. Mamas everywhere were howling along with their babies. He imagined a pinkness in Angel’s veins, his cousin screaming about every drop of blood changing color. Every sound evaporated when he got somewhere near the sea of neighborhood trash bins and threw up. There was nothing left to hear after that but the ringing of white noise.
Nicholas Belardes is a Latino writer and illustrator. He has contributed to Carve Magazine, Memoir Journal, 826 Seattle’s What to Read in the Rain, Knock Magazine, Mission at Tenth, the Nervous Breakdown, the Weeklings, and others. He illustrated the New York Times best-selling novel West of Here, and he is the author of the first experimental twitterature, Small Places. He tweets from @nickbelardes. More at nicholasbelardes.com.