The piss-colored sun flared out just beyond the peak of the San Gabriel Mountains and bounced off the left edge of a looming Sambo’s Restaurant sign, refracting and sending a harsh shard of light straight through the windshield of a white ‘67 Chevy C10 sitting at the opposite end of the long parking lot it shared with the El Monte Inn, where it hit the driver, Poke Rodriguez, square between the eyes. He pried the stiff leather visor down to shield himself, but it was too short to give him any relief. He felt as though the jaundiced eye of an angry, cycloptic God was bearing down upon his soul, which would no doubt prove as streaked as the windshield of his truck, if not quite as filthy as the three-month-old copy of Hustler lying on the seat next to him.
Per the gospel according to Rosalinda Rodriguez, as delivered unto Poke by the living martyr herself several years back after she’d discovered a collection of old cheesecake photos, for which he’d traded a perfectly good Johnny Podres rookie card not two days before, hidden under his mattress, God, who was always watching anyway, was never watching more closely than when a soul engaged in sins of the flesh, even if those sins only took place in the sinner’s imagination. His reply at the time—that that made God a maldito pervertido, then, didn’t it?—had earned him a swift rebuke by way of the back of his mother’s hand. He felt the ghost of that sting now, reflexively bringing his fingertips up to his lips.
He needed a drink something awful. Hoping to distract himself, he picked up the Hustler and opened it over his lap. He flipped through its pages for the umpteenth time with little interest, until he landed on a two-page spread showing a fleshy, freckled blonde with big tits laying atop a large white bed, her legs bent at the knees and splayed wide across both pages so that the middle staple binding the magazine together landed directly below her wispy, white bush. At quick glance, it looked as though she had a silver stud in her clit. A while back, he’d heard tell from Pancho Sandoval—a guitarist he knew from around the way who frequently toured with a couple of brown-eyed soul groups—that there was a whole underground scene of piercing freaks in New York City. Homos mostly, Pancho said, although he’d come across a couple chicks who were into it too. Poke found this prospect more than a little appealing, although he couldn’t say why. He thought maybe he’d check it out for himself on the off-chance he ever made good on his pipe dream of pulling up stakes.
Just as he began to feel the stirrings of something approximating lust, God—either as punishment for his prurience or purely out of boredom—sounded the horn of his emissary. Upon hearing the sharp whistle blast out behind him, Poke jumped in his seat so that his head nearly bounced off the roof of the truck. He shot his eyes into the rearview mirror just in time to catch the short flare of sharp white light swipe through it.
Another of his mother’s oft-repeated homilies held that whenever Christ decides to get up off of his cloud and climb back down to earth, the seven trumpets will sound and fill the air with the song of Heaven. But Poke knew better. Come Judgement Day, it won’t be trumpets blaring, but police sirens.
Chucking the Hustler to the floor, Poke looked into his driver’s side mirror and watched the cop—a Sheriff—exit the cruiser. He was a big guy, not particularly tall, but thick around the shoulders and chest, bulky arms cutting tight against his uniform. From the way he dressed, Poke could tell he was no regular deputy: crisp, tan dress shirt and slacks with nary a crease on them; stiff collar buttoned at the top around a black knit tie pinned flat to his chest by a silver clip; eight-point cap fitted perfectly atop his square head, its bill as polished and sparkling as the black leather wingtips he wore on his feet. So impressed was Poke by the regalia that it took him a couple of seconds to recognize the man underneath.
“License and reg—” the cop started as he approached the window, only to pause when he recognized Poke in turn. “Well, shit. Rodriguez.”
Poke thought back to the last time he’d seen Fred Garza, their paths having crossed six years prior amidst a violent skirmish in the quad of East Los Angeles City College in March of ’68, for what would end up being the final day of his scholastic career.
At the time, that small riot seemed like a residual aftershock to the student blowouts of a few weeks earlier, but now Poke saw it as a prelude to the bloody spring that followed. Within a month, the good Reverend Dr. King would buy it in Memphis and cities across the country would burn in payback. Had he stayed enrolled at East Los, he’d likely have borne witness to some of the worst rioting in the entire Southland, although by that time he was too busy contemplating what all carnage awaited him overseas to much concern himself with any homegrown atrocity.
Around noon that day, Poke was struggling to keep awake for his English Comp 201 lecture when the auditorium doors were thrown open by three Brown Berets; two scrawny, dark-skinned freshman girls and a scraggly, thickset boy he recognized from a stats course he’d taken the previous semester. They stormed the podium and cut off the bewildered professor, a white-haired biddie named Moss who’d been boring the class with a long reminiscence of her misspent youth as a pinko agitator in the ‘40s. Once assembled, they took turns shouting their demands through a shared bullhorn:
“Down with the racist grading system designed to flush out brown and black students! Up with bi-lingual education!”
“Down with the campus ROTC! Up with a Latin American Studies department!”
“Down with the colonialist curriculum taught in the humanities! Up with Corky Gonzales!”
“¡Ándele! ¡Ándele! ¡Ándele!”
Like the rest of his classmates, Poke observed the interruption with exhausted irritation, right up until Professor Moss attempted to engage the demonstrators in a dialog, no doubt counting on her own lefty bonafides to engender sympathy and a mutual respect. She was quickly and viciously disabused of this notion when the male of the trio her grabbed her by the shawl around her collar and flung her headlong and screaming into the first row of students. At that point, the class gave over to chaos and Poke, who’d been sitting in the back row, quickly and quietly made his exit.
Walking out of the auditorium, he turned the corner of the building and nearly barreled into a roving line of nearly two dozen members of the L.A.P.D. Trailing behind at a safe distance, he followed them over to the school quad and watched as they assembled themselves in riot formation to await the loud procession of around 45 Brown Berets marching towards them from other end of the lawn. The marchers, all of whom sported their namesake headwear, held aloft signs in English and Spanish demanding everything from a Spanish-language curriculum, to the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, to the prosecution of Lyndon Baines Johnson for war crimes, to the copulation of Los Angeles’s law enforcement personnel with their own close relatives.
Poke had no desire to watch the inevitable play out, so he sprang off in the opposite direction, but stopped after only a couple of steps when he heard a sharp whistle, followed by “¡Oye! Poke!”
He turned around and looked over to a row of benches in one corner of the lawn, where a group of students and a few members of the faculty gathered to gawk at the encroaching fray. Standing atop one of the benches waving his arms in the air was his lifelong friend Dickie Ramirez. Standing beside him, almost as tall despite Dickie’s vantage, was his other longtime running buddy, Eddie Alonso.
Poke was hardly surprised to see Dickie, who wasn’t enrolled at the school but was always hanging around trying to pick up girls, although he was thrown by the sight of Eddie. Since they’d all graduated high school together a year-and-half earlier, Eddie spent every working hour of the week at his family’s tire shop. Poke wondered how he’d managed to talk his slave-driver of a father into giving him the day off when the answer shot into him like a bolt from an impact wrench. He stopped where he stood and stared dumbstruck at them until Eddie, recognizing Poke’s own terrible recognition, nudged Dickie to climb down off the bench and the two of them walked over to him.
As soon as they were upon him, Poke said, “Choice, not chance. Fuck me.”
“¿Como es que?” Dickie asked.
Poke ignored him and asked Eddie, “You get a letter in the mail today?”
Eddie nodded. “Ma called the shop soon as she saw who it was from.”
“How’d she take it?”
“Better than my pops, actually. It was like someone kicked him in the balls.”
“No kidding? Guess the old man loves you after all.”
“Love, shit,” Eddie hawked a loogie at the grass. “He’s just pissed now he’s gotta pay someone a living wage to fill in for me while I’m gone.”
“The fuck is up with you two?” Dickie cut in. “You both acting like you just saw your sisters in a goddamn donkey show.”
“It ain’t exactly welcome news,” Poke said.
“But it’s expected, no? That’s why we come up with the deal, ‘member?”
“Yeah, I fucking remember.”
“One for one, all for all.”
“Fuck you, dick, you know what I mean.”
“Myself, I’m saying. How the fuck did I let you talk me into this?”
“What, you gonna pussy out?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You scared, so now you gonna pussy out.”
“Lay off,” Eddie said to Dickie. “He wants out, he’s out, no hard feelings.”
“I didn’t say I want out.”
“Ay, cabrones,” Dickie threw his hands in the air. “What the fuck? All acting like someone tripped over your graves. Man, time we’re through with basic training, war’ll already be over and done with.”
Poke asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”
“That Nixon dude running for president say he got a secret plan to win the war. What? Don’t look at me like that, motherfucker, I listen to the news. Anyways, like as not, time we get over there, the only thing we gotta worry about is catching yellow fever from some sideways pussy, know what I mean?”
“Secret plan…” Poke muttered, shaking his head. He let his attention drift over to the lawn, where the pigs and the protesters were squaring off. The administration building lay just beyond the police blockade and Poke knew that unless the Berets were willing to accept this line of demarcation—and clearly they were not, seeing as how no one from that office was present to hear their demands—it was only a matter of minutes before the head-busting got underway.
Watching it all, Poke felt the same onrush of resentment and shame that came over him whenever he was confronted with scenes of civic protest: resentment towards his politically-active peers, whose self-assured moral indignation and performative zeal struck him as endlessly exasperating; shame at himself for not caring enough to stand alongside them regardless. The shame was double in that moment, since he knew it was partly on his own behalf they were protesting.
It had grown increasingly clear to Poke during his time in college that the war in Vietnam would not, as he hoped, wind down before he finished his two-year term. Having neither the grades nor the money to transfer to a proper four-year university come the fall, he’d soon enough be out of deferments. With that in mind, he’d recently informed Dickie and Eddie—both of whom, like himself, turned 19 over the previous months—that he planned to drop out, seeing as there was no practical point in his staying on for the rest of the semester. A few days later, they approached him with their grand idea: that as soon as either one of them received their draft notice, they would all three sign up together in order to reap the benefits that came with voluntary enlistment: choice of branch, better MOS, the opportunity to serve with friends. Dire as Poke found the prospect of handing himself over to the white man’s army to fight in their bullshit war, he could come up with no better alternative. He wasn’t about to burn his draft card and willingly go to jail. Between jail and the army, he’d take his chances in the army.
There was, of course, always Mexico. But somehow, that option struck him as the least plausible. He might have been a Mex, but he didn’t know shit about Mexico.
Later on, he tried not to blame his friends for bringing him into the deal or to begrudge them the strokes of individual luck that resulted in their mostly sitting things out while he did his full bit and then some. He only even let himself hate them a little bit when the national lottery was established after he’d already shipped out and, upon doing the math, he realized that had he just lasted out that final semester and carried his deferment through the summer, the chances of his being drafted later on were slim-to-none.
But he didn’t know any of that on that day. Nor did he have a chance to further weigh his options. Just as the cops began to push in on the protesters, a new ruckus sounded from the entrance of the quad. Poke and the others looked on as two dozen more cops came marching in. At first, Poke assumed they were reinforcements, but he quickly realized that wasn’t the case. Unlike the officers already on the scene, who were decked out in their monochromatic blue uniforms, this new troop bore the brown and tan colors of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
“Uh-oh,” Dickie exclaimed. “Shit’s about to hit the fan!”
Poke knew he was right. As every native of East L.A. was well aware, the only people whom the members of the L.A.S.D. and the L.A.P.D. held greater disdain for than hippies, spics, niggers, fairies or even honest-to-god criminals were one another. Despite the friendly face of cooperation they put on for the papers, the hate between departments ran as deep as it did any other warring gangs.
After a few moments of outward confusion, that hate surfaced for all to see, as representatives from both tribes angrily confronted each other, arguing like baseball coaches and umpires: bumping chests, kicking dirt, screaming in one another’s faces over who had the proper jurisdiction, all while the rank and file hurled insults and threats.
At first, the Berets soaked this all up with bemused annoyance, but it wasn’t long until that morphed into open derision. They started chanting, “¡Lucha! ¡Lucha! ¡Lucha!” One joker from the bunch moved between both groups, pretending to take side bets on the action. Soon enough, the campus onlookers were likewise heckling the cops, who seemed to realize all at once that they had made themselves into laughingstocks.
Poke felt the air in his belly drop at the same moment a thrum of electricity ran through his teeth. He remembered thinking at the time that this must be what people who can predict storms feel right before the thunder cracks.
Next thing he knew, the lawn was a free-for-all, a rolling boil of brown and blue uniforms washing over the diminutive, dark-skinned youths who, in their joviality, were caught completely off-guard by the sheer fury of violence that answered them. Despite their almost having come to blows a few seconds before, both groups of cops worked together to cordon off their prey, trapping the protesters in a tight pen from which there was no chance of escape. Several bystanders within grabbing distance—men and women alike, a couple of whom Poke recognized as profs—were pulled in against their will and subjected to the same brutal beatdown. A few brave souls outside the circle beseeched the police to stop, but their cries went unheeded.
Poke knew he and his friends had stuck around too long. Without having to say anything to Dickie or Eddie, they cut and ran in the opposite direction. They only made it halfway down a row of classrooms when a small retinue of newly arrived Sheriffs appeared from the other side of the campus, jumping out from behind a corner to cut them off. Poke nearly pissed himself at the sight of five hulking, furious, brown-clad, bubble-helmeted shitkickers come running up on him, clubs shorn and raised aloft, but at the last moment one of their number came to a sudden halt, pulled out a silver coach’s whistle, shoved it under the lid of his visor and blew into it. The others stopped and looked back at him.
“Not them—over there!” He raised a hand and tomahawked it in the direction of the quad. The four riot cops followed his command, dashing off around Poke, Dickie and Eddie, while their leader stayed behind and removed his helmet.
“Coach!” Dickie yipped in relief. “Thank Go—”
“Line up!” Garza ordered, like they were all back at El Rancho High running drills, which they might as well have been for the quickness with which they obeyed, pushing themselves up against the wall and standing at attention. “It’s Corporal today, boys.”
It was the first time Poke was actually glad to know the man he’d called coach during his freshman year of high school. Fred Garza, proud son of El Monte, who’d done the city proud in turn by helping lead The Dons to the state semis in ’53, before joining the Sheriffs a few years later and volunteering his free time at the school coaching frosh. While he had yet to repeat his success on the field of play, he seemed to have done well for himself career-wise. He’d been a deputy with the Sheriff’s last Poke had known. That he’d made it to the rank of Corporal was no small feat for a Mex cop, even one who worked in el valle de San Gabriel.
Far as coaches went, Garza was alright; a remorseless hard-ass to be sure, but no sadist. Nor did Poke harbor any ill will over how he’d kept him benched for all but a handful of plays during his one and only season of high school ball. That was where he belonged, having only signed up to play in the first place because Dickie and Eddie, both natural sportsmen, badgered him into doing so. (Story of my life, he would later reflect.) For his part, Garza loathed Poke, not because he was a poor athlete—the nickname Slowpoke may have stemmed from Saturday morning cartoons, but he’d certainly lived down to it—but out of some deeper, implacable notions Poke never could quite figure out.
Time, it seemed, had done nothing to soften his former coach’s opinion, Poke registering the man’s disgust as he moved past him over to Dickie and Eddie, both of whom he regarded with a rote sternness that in no way belied the warmth he felt towards them.
“I’m disappointed in you boys,” he said to them. “This is about the last place I’d expect to find you two.”
“We’re just visiting Poke,” said Eddie.
“That figures,” Garza said, casting the evil eye Poke’s way.
“But we ain’t have nothing to do with that mess over there, Coach,” Dickie said.
“Corporal,” Garza corrected him.
“Honest, sir, Corporal,” Eddie said. “We were just minding our own business when those bums showed up. Wrong place, wrong time, that’s all.”
“Hell, I know that. If I thought I wasted my time schooling the two of you only for you to turn into a couple of flag burners, why, I’d take this gun out its holster and blow my goddamn brains out.” He looked once more at Poke. “After I got through with you first.”
“What I mean,” he continued, “is I’m disappointed to find you stateside at all. There’s a war on and you boys have to be nineteen by now. You should be doing your part.”
“Funny you should mention that, Coa—Corporal,” Dickie said, while Poke let his attention drift over to the steady echo of screams banging down the hallway, a baleful ferment that enveloped his spirit and carried it over an auditory topography of the hot, dark jungle that lay waiting for him halfway across the world. It was like hearing the future.
“So they bumped you up to Sergeant, huh?” Poke asked Garza after the man corrected him on his new designation.
“Congratulations. I’m sure you deserved the promotion.”
A shadow moved over Garza’s face. “I deserved it five years ago, you got that?”
“I got it,” Poke said, meaning it. He noticed Garza had his hand placed over the butt of his pistol in his hip holster, its buckle unclamped. “So, what brings you over to this dump?”
“Some asshole held up a liquor store a few blocks away from here not 30 minutes ago. Cashier said he thought he saw the suspect speed off in a gray pick-up.”
“I see,” Poke leaned his head out the window a little and surveyed the paint job on his truck. “Pretty sure my truck is white. Granted, she could use a wash—”
“So could you,” Garza said. “And a haircut and a shave.”
Poke ran a hand through his greasy hair. “You trying to say it’s not just my truck fits the description?”
Garza shrugged. “Guy wore a ski mask.”
“But…” Garza added, peering into the truck to survey Poke’s seated frame, “clerk also said the asshole was tall.”
“That’s a relief. First time I’ve ever been glad to be short.”
“‘Course, he could’a had an accomplice. You know, a getaway driver.”
Poke laughed. “Anyone dumb enough to use my truck as a getaway car is just begging to be caught. Even if she didn’t stall out on ‘em—and that’s a big if—all you’d have to do is follow the trail of oil. Lead you right to your man.”
Garza weighed this for a couple seconds before moving his hand off his gun. His posture softened a little. “So what are you doing then, sitting out here all by yourself?”
“I’m waiting for my wife,” Poke answered.
“Yeah, she works here.” Poke crooked a thumb at the motel behind them. “Gets off at five.”
Garza raised his right wrist to his face and read his watch. “It’s 5:27. Where’s she at?”
“Still working, no doubt. Asshole owns the place is always keeping her late. I’d tell her to quit, but we really do need the money.”
“Supposed to be the man’s job to provide for his family,” Garza said.
“What can I say.” Poke threw up his hands. “Stagflation is a motherfucker.”
“Take it up with Nixon, Sarge.”
Just then, Poke looked in his rearview mirror and caught sight of a plump, young Mex woman exiting one of the rooms along the top corridor of the motel. She was pushing a towel cart with cleaning supplies in front of her. “That’s her there,” he said, gesturing to Garza, who turned and looked. Poke stuck his hand out the window and waved, but she didn’t appear to see him as she disappeared around a corner.
Garza let out a heavy sigh. “That wasn’t fair of me, what I said just now. It’s hard times for a lot of folks, I know.”
Poke shrugged. “I’ve seen harder.”
“A lot’s happened in the last—what’s it been? Six years?”
“I take it you did end up going over, then? Last we spoke, you were planning on signing up.”
“Oh, I did. I signed up, I shipped out, I came back. In one piece, more or less.”
“More or less?”
“You know how it is. Hey, at least I got some pretty looking medals for my trouble. I can always pawn ‘em if we’re ever real hard-up.”
“What about Ramirez and Alonso? You three were supposed to go in together, weren’t you?”
“We did. Or at least we tried to. Me and Dickie had basic together at Fort Ord, though we ended up in different companies. Marines got Eddie. Plucked his giant ass right outta line when he went downtown for processing, said ‘Welcome to the Corps.’”
“Good boys, those two.”
“They both made it back, case you were wondering.”
“I’d have heard if they didn’t.”
“Actually, Dickie didn’t make it back, by which I mean, he never shipped out to begin with. After Ord, they give him his AIT, send him down to Fort Benning, down Georgia way? Well, anyway, they had some kind of hazing scandal down there, I don’t know. Didn’t have nothing to do with Dickie except apparently he bunked with some rich kid the D.I.’s stomped half to death, so they ended up canceling his orders, kept him stateside as like a witness or some such.”
“You want to talk luck and breaks, talk to Eddie. He ended up in Quảng Trị, as part of the 4th Marine Regiment. His first day over there—first fucking day—supply crate falls on top of him, breaks his foot and ankle in three places.”
“That don’t sound so lucky.”
“It does when you learn what it got him out from under. The 4th had their hands full with three gook regiments for three straight months, ended up taking some of the worst casualties in all of ’69. A hundred dead by the end of it. That shit kicked off less than a week after Eddie had his accident. Time he healed up and made it back, party was all but over.”
Garza shook his head. “I suppose you heard about Mendoza and Garcia?”
“Yeah,” Poke said coldly. “I heard.”
“What about Williams?”
“What about him?”
“Went AWOL and ran off to Canada, the little shit.”
“I’ll be damned. Guess he wasn’t as stupid as I always thought he was.”
“Huerta,” Garza continued, “he signed up for the Air Force, but we popped him peddling grass right before he went in. He pulled almost a year in county.”
“Now that doesn’t surprise me. Who was it you think we all copped from back in the day?”
Garza looked past Poke and stared off at the mountains in the distance. After a few moments of weighted silence, he asked, “Where the hell did it all go wrong? That’s half my starting line killed or maimed in war, or else disgraced themselves dodging it. Meanwhile, you, a born third-stringer if ever I saw one…you actually did your bit and lived to tell about it.”
“Can’t ride the bench forever, I suppose. Besides, you give me too much credit. Make it sound like I won the war single-handed. I don’t know if you heard, but, ah, our side didn’t exactly bring home the gold.”
The same shadow Poke had noticed before once again darkened Garza’s features. He placed his hand back on the butt of his gun and leaned closer towards the truck window. After another heavy interval of silence, he asked, “Do you know why I never liked you, Rodriguez?”
Poke sat up straight in his seat. “No. I really don’t.”
“Had nothing to do with you’re athletic abilities. Hell, you weren’t even the worst player on the team that season. You had decent enough instincts, if not the physical skills to make use of them. Wasn’t the fact that you’re a born smart-ass, either. As much lip as you give your teachers and the other students, you knew better than to run your mouth at me. It’s not even that I could always tell you got no personal ambition. Your whole generation’s that way, it’s not fair single you out.”
He paused to take a deep breath, then continued.
“The reason I don’t like you, the reason I never liked you, is ‘cause you joined the team without joining the team.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t. Didn’t I always follow orders? Do everything I was told.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I never complained. Never argued. Never cried, never bitched.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“So then what—what’s the problem?”
“The problem is this: for a team to win a thing, be it a ball game or a war, it needs every member to want to win. To believe in the cause.”
Poke gave a bitter laugh. “So we’re not talking about football, then.”
“We’re not only talking about football.”
“Coach, not even the people leading the fucking cause believed in it.”
“What difference does that make? Would it have changed anything if they did, far as you’re concerned?”
Poke didn’t answer.
“That’s what I thought,” said Garza. “And this the thing that really burns me up: I’ve seen countless boys—some of them I’ve coached, some of them we were just talking about—good boys, decent boys, boys who made the effort to believe, who did believe, but who made one bad decision along the way, or just caught a lousy fucking break, and ended up dead, or in jail, or on the streets, or in a fucking straight jacket.”
“Oh, so that’s it. I see now. It’s not just that I didn’t believe. It’s that I didn’t believe but still dared to survive. Should be them others sitting here, instead of me.”
Garza and Poke stared hard into one another’s eyes, unblinking, until Garza let out another sad sigh. He slumped his shoulders and took a step back. “I never wished you ill, Rodriguez. I just wanted better for others who deserved better.”
He let the words lay, then turned around and walked back to his cruiser. When he was reaching for the handle of the door, Poke, against his better judgement, stuck his head out the truck window and called over, “Hey!”
Garza stopped and turned around.
“Maybe I don’t deserve to be sitting here right now. Whether you think so or not, it’s probably true. But what do you wanna bet it was one them better boys—one of them good, decent, believing types—ripped off that liquor store today?”
Garza walked back over to Poke. When he was standing in front of him again, he said, “Maybe. Or maybe it was you after all.”
Poke grinned. “If it was, do you think you could prove it?”
Garza’s shook his head. “I don’t need to prove it. If it ain’t me who nails your ass, it’ll be someone I know. If not for this job, then the next. Or, like as not, some cowboy clerk will do the job for us. Sooner or later—and sooner either way than you think—you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of a double barrel shotgun, end up bleeding out behind the counter of some rundown liquor mart keeps a hundred buck in the till. I won’t be around when it happens, but you can be damn sure I’ll be there to watch them scrape what’s left of you off the sticky floors. Because this game, it only ever ends one of two ways, even for the best players. And you ain’t got near what it takes to last as long at it as them.”
“No? You said a second ago that my instincts were good.”
Garza scoffed. “Instincts don’t count for nothing if you’re shit on your feet. And I’ve seen you on your feet, remember, Slowpoke?”
Poke looked down at his feet by the pedals of the truck, then back up at Garza. “Carried me out the jungle, didn’t they?”
“The one in Southeast Asia, maybe. But this is East L.A., Holmes. Jungle might get you yet—”
By the time Poke noticed the charge running through his teeth, the shot had already sounded and Garza was falling over sideways, half his head exploded in a spray of red mist. As happened to Poke in the immediate aftermath of his first encounter with sudden and violent death—when a guy in his platoon tripped a Bouncing Betty during a recon mission not ten feet from where he’d been walking—the world around him blinked out of existence and he found himself floating within a nacreous pink fog. He’d later be given understand this synaptic fugue lasted only a couple of seconds, but for all he knew it might have been hours. Now, as then, he made his way back to the world sense by sense, in order of smell, taste, sound, sight and, finally, touch. The acrid smoke of cordite filled his nostrils and carried down the back of his throat, before the reverberation in his ears took on the sound of running footsteps followed by the nearby slamming of a door. When his vision returned, he was staring at the empty space of parking lot where Garza had stood a moment before. He sat there and blinked, uncomprehending, until he felt a sharp slap against his right shoulder. He turned to his right to see Eddie, wild-eyed and terror-stricken, seated beside him.
“What the fuck are you waiting for?! Fucking go!”
Poke turned the key in the ignition and tore out of the parking lot. He immediately drove through a red light and had to swerve out of the way of a van moving through the intersection from the opposite direction, then narrowly avoided sideswiping two other vehicles as he cut right across three lanes at once in order to make it onto the nearby freeway on-ramp. He didn’t think about direction or destination, but nonetheless found himself heading south towards the one-bedroom hovel he and Eddie had been flopping at for the past three weeks. For the several minutes they spent on the freeway, Eddie sat on his knees facing the back window of the truck, watching for cops while holding tight to his still-smoking pistol. It was only once they were off the freeway again that he spoke, barraging Poke with a flurry of questions: “Who the fuck was that cop? Why the fuck were you talking to him so long? What’d you tell him? Did anyone see you? Did anyone get our license plate?” Poke didn’t attempt to answer any of these, and eventually Eddie turned his questions to himself. “What did you do? Oh god, what did you do?”
When they arrived at their spot, Poke told Eddie to get out and wait for him inside. Eddie obeyed without further question, grabbing up the Hustler from the floor mats and using it conceal his pistol, along with a bulging brown paper sack he’d removed from his back pocket when he climbed out. Poke watched him rush up the short flight of concrete stairs to their single room unit on the top floor of the dilapidated apartment complex and disappear behind the door. He then drove five blocks east and parked the truck off a narrow side street shielded from the main drag by a row of auto garages and warehouses.
On the brisk walk back to his room, Poke felt the numbness of shock leave him. He expected fear and panic to take its place, but to his surprise, he remained entirely calm.
When he entered the room, he found Eddie already nodding out. He was seated on his mattress on the floor across from Poke’s bed and boxspring, head and back propped against the wall, legs splayed spread eagle in front of him. He still had his belt wrapped around his right bicep, although it had gone slack. His works lay on the floor beside the mattress, alongside the pistol and brown paper sack. Poke walked over and picked them up. He tossed the pistol onto his bed, then opened up the sack and did a quick count of the cash inside. Eddie had spent more than he said he would on the dope. His precious, stupid dope that he’d insisted on copping first thing after the score in spite of Poke’s objections and which had taken them to that wretched motel and made of them cop killers.
He tossed the bag onto the bed beside the pistol, then stared down at Eddie. A hoarse, wheezy moan emanated out the black chasm of his open mouth. It made Poke suddenly cognizant of his own body, the inside of his throat still scorched with the taste of brimstone. He moved over to the sink and drank a couple palmfuls of water, then grabbed a fresh quart of rye whiskey from the cupboards below. He’d bought the bottle first thing that morning but had forced himself to save it until the day’s work was done. It had taken every ounce of willpower not to break the seal once he had it in hand, yet Eddie couldn’t even give it a couple of hours for any heat to die down to go cop a fix.
Poke took two long pulls from the bottle in quick succession, then went over to the bed and plunked himself down. He kicked off his shoes, put up his feet and set to drinking. He didn’t know how long he’d been staring at Eddie before he realized he was stroking the pistol where it lay next to him. He picked it up and aimed it at Eddie, squinting one eye to fix a sight dead center on his gaping maw. Nearly a minute passed before he lowered the pistol and placed it back down beside him. He continued to stare at Eddie. He no longer felt anger towards him, only pity. But that pity was suffused with a keen sense of jealousy. He envied the ease and totality of his friend’s oblivion. Drinking, it took Poke far longer to reach the same state, and all the while his head raging with usual din of dark thoughts, painful memories and bad dreams.
It was only in thinking about those chimeras that Poke noticed their absence now. His head felt completely clear. Instead of sending him into the usual tempest that preceded the desired blackout, the booze seemed to crystallize his thoughts. He was able to put his current circumstance into such sharp relief that he could look through it and see what came next. It was like seeing the future.
He saw that he needn’t worry over Eddie. Eddie posed no danger to him. His friend would never be able to live with what he’d done, not even for a day. Once he came to and remembered, he would immediately and permanently retreat back into the dungeon of his soul for which dope made the key. He would swallow that key and be swallowed up in turn. By the time anyone who came looking for him found him, he would be long gone.
So too would Poke be gone, although not in the same sense. It was obvious he could not afford to stick around, but nor was it enough to simply skip town. A change of scenery would make no difference if he continued to carry on as he had been the past two years. He had to make a real change. No more dithering about in a sunburnt haze of daytime dope smoking and an amniotic blur of late-night boozing. No more half-assed criminal enterprises. Garza was right: either the cops would nail him or else he’d wind up plastered over the sticky floors of some shabby, two bit liquor store with a hundred bucks in the till. Or, just as likely and worse yet, he’d manage to avoid any such reckoning altogether. He’d skate by for weeks, on top of months, on top of years, staying put, doing the same thing day after day until one day he’d take the cliché route expected of him, stick his own gun in his own mouth and pull the trigger himself. Just one more burnt-out head case who couldn’t hack it in civilian life.
No. He would not abide such a fate. He’d change his life, find something to live for, something to believe in, just like Garza said. He had no clue what that thing would be, but he was certain he’d recognize it once he found it.
Poke polished off the bottle, letting the final drop of booze roll around on his tongue until it soaked into his taste buds. He made sure to savor it, as it would be his last for the foreseeable future. He had work to do and he knew he couldn’t do it drunk.