One dark night.
The sun was almost down.
In the distance a noise grew louder, a dull roar punctuated by breaking glass, sporadic gunfire, screams, but no sirens for more than a day.
Jim could smell the fires.
His mother said that she had thrown a gun out a few days before. But the trash cans behind the house were all empty now.
His father always had one, she had said to his surprise. It made sense, of course, for the man to own a gun. He had been a war veteran after all, so he knew how to handle one. It also made sense to keep this secret from his sons.
Jim could hear voices coming from the county park on the other side of the back fence. But he could not make out the words.
He moved about the yard quietly, afraid that he might be the one being spied on. He was careful not to step on a twig or leaf and made sure not to shuffle his feet in the dirt. He then moved slowly up onto the back porch.
Normally the television would be on. The program did not matter at any given time. But this was the second night without electricity.
They had been watching the television news coverage of the demonstrations taking place after the four white police officers had been acquitted of beating the crap out of another unarmed black man.
That was a messed up thing to do, thought Jim. But he was lucky it wasn't the county sheriffs. They would have killed him.
There had been footage from a couple of miles down the street of a lone white man getting dragged from a truck and being beaten by a gang of black men. Later that night they watched a mob smash the glass door and windows at Parker Center, the police headquarters downtown.
Then the electricity all went out.
It was just as well. They did not need the news to tell them that there was a riot.
Darkness came fast.
Jim made his way up to the attic. It was difficult climbing the narrow stairway. He felt his way with his hands on both walls. He counted the steps to the top to himself the way he always did. Without his hands pressed against the walls for balance, he felt like he would tumble backwards off a cliff into the darkness.
He stopped outside the attic door.
He remembered Ernest Borgnine in the 1971 movie Willard. Borgnine was the boss, Mr. Martin, who was constantly mean to Willard and belittled him every chance he could. Willard blamed Mr. Martin for stealing his house, the business from his family and killing his mother. Of course, it was all true. But Willard had never said a word about it.
Until one day after Mr. Martin killed Willard's best friend, the white rat, Socrates, Willard finds his courage behind his rat army and, drunk on power and quivering with madness, delivers a short speech to the man.
He told him, "You made me hate myself, but now I like myself."
He swallowed hard, looking for more words. It was in his face, his eyes, the shape of his mouth. But he could not find them. He settled on commanding his army.
He shouted, "Tear him up."
The army of rats, led by big and black Ben, then attacked the Mr. Martin character, all bug-eyed and furrowed brow as only Borgnine could be, the rats jumping on him, knocking his begging and shrieking frame out of the second story window and to the ground down below to his death.
Jim opened the attic door abruptly, then closed it just as quickly, hoping to scatter the rats away. When he closed it, he could hear scratching coming from behind it. He banged on the door, then opened it again. He moved abruptly, stepping just inside the door, holding onto the screw-eye hook and latch and keeping the door closed so the rats did not escape into the rest of the house but with his hand still on it just in case. He could not stand up straight but bent over because of the roof slant.
He had spent a lot of time up here as a boy, a private space despite the heat and dirt. But this was their rat world for years already.
Jim gagged at the smell of urine. He moved his feet about, lifting them up and down due to the sensations at foot level, the scurrying of critters.
"Hey, hey, hey," he said again and stomped his foot, hoping to startle them away.
That was a bad idea because the floor consisted of only a few wooden pallets set atop the aged and rotting rafters near the door. He felt it give way a little bit, like he might plunge through to the first floor.
He spoke out loud for this same reason, as he oriented himself to his surroundings, hoping to scare the rats.
"Get out of my way," he said. He felt for the light bulb atop the ceiling.
"What the hell?" he said, feeling something brush against his leg and kicking his foot out from under him to shoo away the creature seemingly advancing up his body.
"Get the hell away from me," he said.
His foot banged against a steamer trunk that he had hoped he would find. He reached out into the darkness in front of him for the feel of metal at waist level.
"Don't mess with me," he said.
He found a metal handle and lifted it from underneath something. Boxes, he assumed, that shifted and fell. The squealing increased as the objects made their way down to the floor.
He banged his head on the ceiling, really the underside of the roof, when he did this. In one swift motion, he lifted the box with his right hand and opened the door behind him again with his left hand, pushing it closed quickly and putting the latch back in place.
He teetered for a moment at the top of the stairs, feeling a little light-headed from the experience. He then leaned against the door. He could hear scratching and squealing coming from the other side. There was no way to know if any of them had escaped into the rest of the house, which is not to suggest that the rats did not have the run of the entire household, first and foremost, already.
He felt along the wall with one hand as he made his way back down the stairs. Without his hand against the wall, he felt like he would plunge face forward into the abyss. The metal box clanked and clattered against his knee, then the wall, alternating back and forth in the dark.
He moved slowly through the darkness at the bottom of the stairs. He placed one hand on the doorjamb and turned the corner out of the kitchen and into the dining room. He held onto a small shelf that jutted out three inches from the wall at shoulder level. His fingers grazed the religious figurines and framed pictures of family that he knew lined the shelf. He moved only a couple of inches at a time. He knew there were a chair and a bureau nearby. He moved slowly around the furniture and across the room.
It was not any easier maneuvering around in the dark for a second night. The darkness came as a surprise even though he had spent time watching it envelop him. When the darkness fell it was startling to the senses and difficult to adjust to. Jim felt as equally inept as he had the night before.
"Are you still sitting there?" he asked.
His mother answered from the couch, 'Where am I going?"
The front door was open just a crack to see a few houses down to the corner. He knew the iron security gate was locked. But he went to check it anyway and close the door.
"How long are you going to sit there?" Jim asked.
"I'll wait until your brother returns," she said. "What did you find in the attic?"
"Just firecrackers, "he said.
He continued along the wall away from his mother's voice.
"What are you going to do, eat firecrackers?" said his mother, the same as she had since he was a boy.
He put the box down on the bureau. He felt around the front for the latch. It was a metal, military ammo box painted army green with a black handle, latch, and hinges. He had no idea where it came from originally. His father, he imagined. But he had claimed it as his own for as long as he could remember.
He scratched his thumbnail against the top of a wooden match, which exploded into flame. He held it at the end of his extended arm, away from the box. He lifted the lid for only a second before closing it, just long enough to catch a glimpse of the M- 80s that he had hoped he would find.
He looked around the place before the match went out. The shadow cast by the match made the room look like a setting for a low-budget horror film, including, for that instant, his mother's flickering figure looking old and frail.
He planned to use the firecrackers against any crazy ass fool that wandered anywhere near the house, either from the street or the park.
The night before he had wished there had been something more than the lone baseball bat and assorted kitchen knives between him and his brother. Those were close-contact weapons and Jim wanted to keep the criminals far away. They had taken turns sleeping and standing guard. But his brother split on him early that morning.
"You should go to sleep," he said, then moved slowly back to the kitchen.
He found the sink and counter and junk drawer on the left. He rummaged through screws, nuts, bolts, washers, screwdrivers, nails, batteries, pieces of string and wire all mixed together in a metallic stew, then found a pair of scissors.
He took an M-80 and felt it in his hands, measuring its one and a half inch length and half inch diameter. The fuse came out of the side. He put his finger where the fuse met the body and cut the fuse at the top of his finger. Shortening it by half, he estimated. He planned to jack up any crazy ass fool that came near. This would not allow said crazy ass fool to get away or get near.
She dreamed it was 1965, the same story all over again.
The summer was hot. But inside the house there was no indication that the largest riot in the nation up to that point in history was taking place right outside their door. Marco was still in diapers, Jim just out of them. It was a noisy household, lots of fighting, crying and screaming.
She kept hearing the same songs on the AM radio too, songs talking about there being nowhere to run or hide and a wooly bully, whatever that was, all part of the sounds of that summer.
There were shootouts, one with looters down the street on Florence and Holmes Avenues and another around the corner at the Sheriff's station on Compton Avenue. She kept hearing the barrage for years after in her memory, more of the sounds of that summer.
That was the summer her pachuco cousin, Tavo, was found dead of a heroin overdose in the park. They had only been in that house for a couple of years. She heard the sirens that day as they made their way the long way down their street then around the corner to the park, still more of the sounds of that summer.
Johnny was working at a local factory. Every morning he would get up at six to get ready. She would make breakfast, scrambled eggs and toast, and coffee for him, the pot percolating on the stovetop. He wore khakis and a white t-shirt with brown oxfords every day except on Sundays when he went to church and put on a collared, long-sleeved shirt and black shoes. His pants were always nicely creased and his shoes shined brightly. He rode with Sam from the next street over because he did not have a car.
Neither did they have a phone, but the neighbors would take important calls for them from relatives or Johnny's work and let them use the phone on the rare occasion that they needed to do so.
That evening Johnny told her how a carload of sheriffs had stopped them on their way home from work, taking them all out of the car at the point of shotguns, dumping out their beers, running their names and pulling the seats out of the vehicle, looking for stolen goods or drugs they said.
"Because all brown faces look the same on this side of town," one sheriff had said.
After that, Johnny had put up his American flag and stood on the porch with his gun tucked into his belt, smoking Camel nonfilter cigarettes and drinking cans of Schlitz, "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous," for the rest of that long weekend the California Highway Patrol stopped an unarmed black man near 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard and ended up shooting him dead.
She could not say for certain whether the gun was for the criminals or the police.
At the north end of the park there were a dozen or so BBQ_grills situated among benches. Four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood affixed across posts a foot above the ground partitioned the area into more individual spaces, offering a modicum of privacy. One could hide there fairly easily if he put his feet up on a bench and kept his head down.
Marco sat just this way as he had many other times over the years.
He had stumbled his way over the broken sidewalk and curb in the dark to find a seat. He still carried a quart bottle of Colt 45 malt liquor wrapped in a paper bag. He gripped it by the neck and tilted his head back to take a long drink.
It had been a good day. He had got up early and left before anyone else was awake. He had felt guilty for a minute because he split on his broham, but he knew that would all blow over.
He had spoken about going out and finding some food the day before. No one responded to him or believed what he said, not even himself. He knew as well as his brother and mother that the plan was to get drunk. They had plenty of food. His mother and brother had warned him about the curfew, the sheriffs and National Guard, trying to reason with him.
But he needed to get his drink on, plain and simple.
He took another long swig from the bottle. It would be gone soon with no more to follow.
He had not needed any money, just as he had hoped. There was plenty to drink at Tony's, the good stuff too, quart and forty ounce bottles of Rainier Ale, Colt 45, St. Ide's, Olde English 800, and the Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull. Whoever had done the looting had known what they were doing, a true ghetto champion.
Earlier that day, Marco felt bad for a moment when he saw the burned out carcass of the American Liquor Mart up the street. The owner, a Korean dude named Mr. Moon, was cool. He gave Marco credit on the off week when he was not paid. Mr. Moon had offered it one day. Marco did not even have to ask. Mr. Moon must have seen all the evidence, the quarters and dimes and nickels and pennies to pay for the booze, the absence of the prewrapped poor boy sandwich. Marco grabbed one as soon as Mr. Moon offered the credit, the first and only meal of the day. He even threw in a three-pack of discount porn magazines without perusing the racks for the best looking one.
Indeed, Mr. Moon was cool. But free booze was much more cool.
He remembered one time when he was fifteen. He had come with his friends on bicycles to this place to drink. Ronnie was there along with Luis and Ferdinand who lived near Ronnie. Marco had gone to the store to buy the six-pack of sixteen-ounce cans of the malt liquor bull. The plan was for everyone to drink their own can and then share the leftovers. Luis and Ferdinand were rookies. So was Ronnie compared to Marco. But that was okay with Marco because he knew that he would finish the six-pack off when the others quit on him.
The group stayed on their bicycles, looking out over the tops of the partitions with the cans of malt liquor hidden behind the wall. They each had a direction to look in. Ronnie looked south into the park to make certain the sheriffs or Park Patrol (armed county officers) did not come creeping up from between the many trees in that direction. Luis looked to the southwest to Graham Avenue, the street that ran alongside the park, to make certain they did not suddenly appear from behind the gymnasium. Ferdinand looked to the northwest direction in case the cops came down Graham from the north. Marco looked directly to the north where both Beach Street and Holmes Avenue emptied into a horseshoe into the park.
They each propped one foot on a bench and kept the other on a pedal ready to flee. They gulped the malt liquor down in silence, unceremoniously.
The four did not normally find themselves together after school. Luis and Ferdinand did not usually hang around because they went to different high schools. They both gagged on their drinks.
Ronnie's buzz came on quickly, laughing to himself. "Hey, Marco," he said, "let's go find some rucas, ese." He had been in training with Marco.
Marco finished first. "Anyone want more?" he asked, popping open another can before any response came.
He was on his third can when the sheriffs came down Beach Street.
"Cops coming," Marco shouted. The four of them scattered, beer cans flying.
Marco headed south through the park toward home. Halfway through the park was a doorway in the fence that he could get through but a car could not.
Marco laughed at the memory. His legs were stretched out and crossed on the bench before him. The cops were always rousting them as boys, but he knew he was not immune even as a man.
He would have to return to work at some point. It was time to go home. He was tired more than anything else.
There were fights at the other end of the park, the only ones he had seen for the last two nights. Walking through the park would still be better than being on the street.
He moved over to the trees on the eastern edge of the park, along the fence dividing the backs of the homes from the county property. He moved cautiously through the darkness, doing his best to be quiet so as not to stir any of the dogs in the backyards of the residences. He could hear gunfire off in the distance.
He had spent many years walking across this same couple of dozen acres of land, an old park built during the 1930s. He practiced track and field in the park with his school team as a boy. He thought that one and a half laps around the park equaled a mile. But he could not remember for certain. The park stretched from the 7200 block down to the 7900 block, at least twice as long as wide.
Fie also remembered practicing football in the park. Sometimes the blacks would gather themselves together a hundred hoodlums strong and chase out the small band of Mexican boys for sport. Some days a boy fought. Some days a boy ran.
A siren sped down the street on the other side of the houses. Marco slowed, moving in closer to the fence line. He carefully approached the doorway in the fence in the middle of the park. He could hear the engine of a sheriffs car and the occasional two- way radio. He peeked from behind a clump of the ivy covering the fence and saw two squad cars parked in the street near the doorway, facing in opposite directions so the drivers could talk. They were the first ones he had seen all day.
He pulled his head back quickly and stood there listening.
A hood-mounted spotlight shone into the park from one of the vehicles. It spanned the landscape, allowing him for a split second to situate the various trees, gymnasium, flagpole, sand-filled playground, swings and slides and jungle gyms to climb on that he knew were there somewhere in the darkness before him.
Then the spotlight went out.
Marco moved back slowly, staying close to the fence line and reconstructing the landscape in his mind. Then he moved out west at a wide angle from tree to tree, hiding behind them and staying outside the range of the spotlight.
He knew that he would have to leave the trees and cut across an open area to the flagpole.
The flagpole was a large, freestanding art deco structure made of concrete blocks. The base was a hexagon, each side measuring eight feet long. These sides stood a foot and a half off the ground and flattened out four feet into a bench. Four concrete blocks, three feet tall, a foot and a half wide and deep, each stood in the center, another four positioned atop them contrapuntally, then the flagpole.
Marco stood and stretched, leaning against it tightly.
The spotlight turned on and swept 180 degrees across the landscape.
This allowed him for a brief second a chance to further map out his next move in the shadows.
When the spotlight turned off, he moved further and further into the black, then fell face first into the playground sand.
He looked up at the squad car.
No movement. No spotlight.
Marco crawled through the sand. That was his only chance.
He bumped into another body crawling through the sand. A barely audible grunt acknowledged the collision before moving on its own way.
The National Guard had set up camp at this other end of the park.
But this was his park, his barrio. He had to get home.
They were the outsiders.
Marco could hear their conversation.
"I just don't understand these people, more like animals," said one. "Why do they burn their own community?"
"They oughta all be put in jail if you ask me," said another.
Marco grabbed the fence and pulled himself up quickly. He had plenty of practice scaling fences and this one in particular over the years, running from mayates, cholos, and the police.
For a second he thought he smelled sulfur.
He saw in his peripheral vision a series of flashes against the ivy. He was not sure whether they came from the front or behind; then came the sound, a series of explosions, one right after the other like gunfire, before he fell.
Danny Romero was born and raised in Los Angeles. He earned a BA from UC Berkeley and an MA from Temple University in Philadelphia. He is the author of the novel Calle 10 (Mercury House) and the poetry collection Traces (Bilingual Press). He teaches at Sacramento City College.