“Conventions” by Jesus De La Torre: SMU Fiction Award First Place
Jesus De La Torre
“BETTY! HEY, COME HERE!”
“Shut the fuck up man.”
“Come on, she’ll blow you for a dollar; or if your broke ass don’t have a dollar to spare, just tell her you’ll help her find Langston.”
“Fuck you,” I said with emphasis—with friends like these, if you didn’t sound pissed they’d keep fucking with you. “I don’t have a dollar to spare; ain’t bout to look for Langston, or bout to catch herpes this early in the morning.”
Her name was Betty Florence, but everyone just called her Crack Head Betty. She was always on a red motorized wheelchair that had a basket in the front; in that basket she always carried an empty Coca-Cola bottle filled with water, cans of dog food, and, when it wasn’t in her grip, a red flashlight. Discalced, brittle, and stunk like shit: for real; her hair was gray and thick and she always wore the same dated, filthy, and dirty jeans; they were ripped at the knees and people on my block always clowned her for it—they said it was ripped at the knees because of all the dick she’d sucked. Every day she’d maneuver in and out of broken beer bottles and ant piles in her desperate and fruitless search for a so-called Langston. She carried the flashlight though it didn’t light—in broad day. Her dirty palm and boney fingers barely held that shit up. You knew she was coming—her wheelchair purred like one of those military robots used to defuse bombs in Iraq. Every morning she’d ask us before rolling past if we’d seen her dog. I’d say “no,” Noel would say “fuck no,” Ricardo had an IPod (stolen) and didn’t hear shit—ever; and Victor—well, Victor would change the arrangement of the words, but the question would be the same; something along the lines of “Will you suck my dick if I find him?” Then she’d roll past us: “Langston, darling; Langston boy. Here, boy; here, Langston boy.”
“That fucker finally got tired of your shit,” Victor said, referring to the bitch ass bus driver that didn’t make the stop; he’d slowed down at first, but as I made my way and my fingers were at the door, he accelerated.
Asshole: he left grinning.
Thomas Jefferson High (T.J.) wasn’t far from my house: two blocks. I detested the tread, though. After middle school I started using my uncle’s address to go to a school in Grand Prairie; that in turn transformed me into the neighborhood pussy almost overnight. Cause I didn’t go to T.J. or sling or fight. Noel, Ricardo, and Victor would walk me to the bus stop before branching out together towards T.J. I always sat in the same seat—one before the last; once seated, I’d look out the window and down upon them and feel pity because they weren’t going to step outside that jungle of absolute failure like I was—even if it was only for eight hours. Then as if they sensed they’d done something nice and I had appreciated it, they’d start yelling “PUSSY,” as they banged and pushed on the sides of the bus as it drifted away from that black and miserable place. The driver would throw his fits and threaten not to make that stop anymore (he wasn’t bullshitting either) “I’ll meet you at the next one then,” I’d bark back; the passengers would hold their purses tighter, and then turn their necks, face me and squint their eyes and tighten their lips in obvious dissatisfaction—despite it all, however, I still considered it an amiable gesture on their part and wished it never to cease.
As we turned on Twelfth Street, a block away from my house, a charcoal colored Malibu pulled up on us honking and with flashing headlights; it was Victor’s dad. He violently flung the door open and then jumped out with a certain air of authority that his skinny and brown figure didn’t transmit; I knew his name was Raul because it was stitched to his brown work uniform and he always had that fucker on.
“Para eso te saque de la otra escuela, cabrón?” Yeah, he was pissed. He’d pulled Victor out of an even worst school than T.J. because he’d found a dime sack in his bag. But unfortunately for his father, Victor had found me, Noel, Ricardo, and, once again, weed. He loved to smoke it, and Noel always had it.
“Que? Man I’m just going to Jose’s; ask him: nobody’s at school today.” He was trying hard to get out of an inevitable ass-whooping, but his dad had his leather belt in his hand already and was walking over to Victor with his brown work pants almost falling off his hips. Yeah, that was Victor’s dad—quick to belt his son in vain attempts to straighten out the little pot-head. And when he got really pissed he spoke English:
“And you, Noel, stay away from my son—fucking drug dealer; he’s only a sophomore.”
“Fuck you,” Noel barked back, as Victor’s dad slammed the gas until his cursing was only faintly heard and the charcoal Malibu only a dark spot on the burning concrete. “That fucker is truly innocent; don’t give me that sophomore shit like the boy can’t handle his own. He’s a sophomore? Yeah, cause he’s flunked—that motherfucker’s older than me.”
Ricardo bobbing his head escaped his trance momentarily, “I’m bored. Deuces.” That was the usual verbal commitment we got from Ricardo. It was ‘wuz up wit it’ when we met and then “deuces” as he walked away bopping his head to some chump’s IPod. He’s Noel’s brother. He was going to join the army in the summer. He’d say that if he was going to get shot he preferred it to be done in another country—cause it’d be like he’d done something, he’d be a hero. I think he hated the hood as much as I did and was just sick of Noel, sick of it all. None of us had had a real conversation with him in a grip; all he did was smoke Noel’s weed and listen to music. When he was younger he’d show us his bruises and cuts; his dad would beat their mom damn badly, and he’d still be whooping them too, but Noel started punching back in middle school. Insurance companies won’t cover their mom because her emergency room records indicate a continual physical misfortune. She needs some work; poor lady—she looks broke, and not broke like poverty, but broke like when a glass vase falls on a concrete floor.
“That fucker ain’t my blood,” Noel mumbled as Ricardo distanced himself from us. “He’s going off to protect the United States, but he don’t give a shit about the hood. When they smoke his ass and send us a flag, I’m burning the bitch.”
“I don’t give a fuck about the hood either; shit ain’t mine, and if it were I’d get all of these fucking bums and crack heads, and dealers the fuck out—including your bum ass.”
“Because you’re pussy. I’m staying, and on my momma I’ll make more bread then you ever will…,” when Noel started rambling on like this with his illusions of grandeur you just had to zone him out. I always let him know that he didn’t impress me at all.
Noel was eighteen; scrawny, with an unfriendly gaze. He was always tapered with a one up top and a zero for the sides near his ears. He had this skimpy gold necklace he always wore, and hanging on it was an AK-47 like the one Pac used. I’ve never liked tattoos; I reasoned that you didn’t want to be an old ass man with a tattoo of some shit you picked when you were eighteen: Noel had two of the more obnoxious and ignorant ones that I’d seen: I’ve never been a pussy cuz my hood will never let me across his belly and God’s Soldier and a cross right under it on his forearm—the motherfucker hadn’t made it in to church since his baptism, yet he was a soldier of Christ.
“Where’d you get the Js?” I asked Noel. He can’t afford them, who’d he jack this time, I thought. Jordan Spiz’ikes—white, cement grey, varsity-red and black, or in French: Blanc, gris, rouge, et noir. They had a quarter-sized Spike Lee on the heel wearing the oversized glasses and the BROOKLYN hat. Smooth as fuck—but not his.
“Bought em, bitch.”
“Hell, no. With what?”
“Bitch, I got a lot o’ gwop; Raulphy has me pushing birds now.”
“Man, go somewhere with that shit; you can’t shed a pound of weed, why would they trust your ass with snow? You got shit all fucked up homie, for real.”
“On my momma…”
“You don’t give a shit about your mom.”
“I’ll prove it faggot; I’ll show you my girlfriend. Raulphy hooked us up,” he lifted his shirt and tucked into the waistband of his blue starched jeans was a Glock, “hollow tips too. What now?”
“Dead or in jail; you still ain’t shit,” I muttered with true disillusionment.
“Whatever man; you’re holding it for me this weekend.”
“My dad’s back. I beat his ass last time—almost killed him. If he starts beating on my mom again or tries to fuck with me or Ricardo and I have the Glock, I’ll probably end up blowing his chest open.” I thought about their broken mother and the father beating her again and then about Noel’s short fuse and infamous impulsivity, and agreed: “Yeah, ok; I’ll hold it for you.” Noel passed me the glock and it felt warm in my palm and I stuffed it in my bag, and there it was heavy.
I hate the block with a passion: trash strewn everywhere like the city didn’t provide those big ass cans; drop outs with black hoodies hangin round the block, slinging, trying to sell me weed or crack or cheese—cheese, like I was that fucked up; stray starving dogs wandering wildly, feverishly like guardians of a street of anarchy, barking and biting and foaming at the mouth while kids of all ages jump rope about without sensing the eminent danger; cops that asked me the same shit: “what gang are you in,” but when someone was being jacked, beaten, or raped, they’d arrive late or not at all; I’d get jumped now and then, too—like I had bread.
We arrived—4923 Wisteria:
My house wasn’t the stereotypical Mexican home you’ve seen on T.V. No fucking plastic on the sofa, and no posters of the Virgen de Guadalupe or the rest of the sain’ts draped on walls; no bright and lively colors either; no, the insides of my home didn’t look like the color palette of a fruit basket; and no, we didn’t have sombreros and crosses hanging from every corner. My mom had lived in Texas for more than half of her life, and her only link to our culture was the language. My dad’s from a ranch in the South of Mexico and if someone in the house would’ve layered and coated the home with Mexican culture it’d been him, but he worked to damn much to remotely affect the aesthetics of the home.
“What happened to ya’ll’s bougie ass mailbox?”
“Some fucker hit it last night; I’m tired as shit right now too,” usually our nights were accompanied by a bunch of fucking alarms—bullets and shit. It wasn’t a novelty to hear gun-shots; sometimes it’d be a poor bastard getting his brains or intestines spread across the concrete and some kid would find the body on his way to school the next day, or it’d just be some drunk or high motherfucker shooting at the moon. But on that night at about three a.m., some asshole swerving in and out of the lamppost light and barely missing parked cars, banged his old Chevy pick-up into our mailbox; my dad had paid for one of those nice brick ones too—when I looked out the blinds the bricks were strewn across the lawn like the Legos Star Wars battle ship you stay up all night putting together, only to have your drunken older brother fall on it unconscious and half-poisoned.
“And, what’d you do?”
“Just like you,” Noel said. “Nothing; I would’ve shot his bitch ass.”
“Yes, yes, yes, with ‘your gun’.”
Noel had, what I considered, the extremely bad habit of lying and exaggerating frequently; everybody does it, but not all the damn time. He was always talking about pushing weight, but the only reason he even sold his weed was because Victor bought it from him. I don’t want to sound like a hater, but if I’d wanted to, I know I would’ve tripled sales for Raulphy; I never fucked with that shit though—my dad would’ve skinned me alive and once even told me that he’d hang me from the tallest tree if he caught me doing or selling drugs (I smoked, but never sold); and I was set on going to college, but when you lived where I did, conforming and accepting conventions meant selling, fighting, biting, and pulling triggers; it was alluring, and at times I felt like going to Raulphy and asking him for work, but nah, Noel sold and he always looked broke as hell.
He was outside on the steps now. I was inside admiring the glock wanting it to be mine. “Jose, put on a CD and bring your ass outside,” Noel yelled. We’d usually chill on the steps, Noel would roll a blunt, I’d put on an album, and then we’d listen to music, talk shit, and smoke his weed.
“What you wanna hear?”
“Illmatic,” like always he said Illmatic.
Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high
‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go
Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we puff lye
‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go
It was about 1:15 p.m. when we noticed Mrs. Montgomery peering out her blinds with those squinting eyes set on us. Then her door opened and she stepped out. She was damn old. She was wearing beige slippers and a flowered muumuu; her skin hanging from every direction—nasty and all veiny. She sat on her rocking chair and looked at us squinting and shifting her sights every now and then, but mostly her gaze was fixed on me and Noel. Gross old lady, and mean as shit too. She’d called us spicks before and as a kid my dad would make me go over and ask if she needed anything. I’d say good morning Mrs. Montgomery, and she’d say ‘get your brown ass back home’—I never knew if by this she meant Mexico or my home across the street.
“Is that bitch dogging us? See something you like baby?”
“Don’t do that shit.”
“Chill, pussy; you think that crusty ass raisin can hear me from across the street?”
We’d been out for about fifteen minutes. Mrs. Montgomery was still staring; the sun was blazin, and track 4: The World Is Yours was now playing.
“Fuck,” Noel yelled; his face became pale, his limbs unstill, and his eyes aghast, “get the Glock, get it.”
“What the fuck for?”
He nodded towards a group of thuggish lurid men. There was about ten of them. One had his shirt off and his skin was more green than brown, his boxers showing and his jeans dragging under his chucks; there was a tall bald one that had a scar on his over-sized forehead. His ears drooped sadly as if the fiery Texas sun was melting them away. I didn’t know them all, but I could spot Rico. We all knew Rico. This fucker had it all—the girls, the clothes, the drugs. Somebody must’ve fucked him up, I thought because his face was bruised and irritated; it was awkward, as if someone had interrupted his streak of being fresh and clean and untouched. Next to him though was a big and stocky mother fucker. He even had tatts on his head and the famous and clichéd tear drop—I wondered if he’d killed anyone. He was wearing a wife-beater and was walking toward us limping all ‘cool and shit.’ I felt nervous, but wasn’t shook; we’d see gangs like theirs walking around our neighborhood frequently—like you’d see homeless men loiter at liquor stores or prostitutes sell ass on Harry Hines—it’s the norm.
“I don’t know about the rest, but that tall bald motherfucker is Cole; he just got out the pin.”
“He’s Rico’s brother.”
Noel’s face sunk and rested against his chest and stoically he looked at the Jordan Spiz’ikes, “I beat Rico’s ass last week and ganked his Js. I’ve been dodging that big fucker for a grip. Get the Glock.”
“Fuck that. Leave Rico’s shoes out here and let’s go inside,” I could hear the pack talking shit now. Rico’s eye was bruised and he was walking right next to Cole; what a thick motherfucker.”
“Hell nah, he’s been saying I’m a pussy. Word got to Raulphy; I got to at least fight his big ass,” Noel still seated grabbed at one of the bricks that lay strewn on the lawn. They were right in front of us now—rage filled futureless assholes, Mrs. Montgomery was walking slowly back inside her house—old bitch; we were scared as shit.
“Wuz up wit it, hoe; nice Js, they fit you o.k.?
“They’re decent; I was thinking of giving them back though. I like the black ones better.” Noel was now standing. On the steps, I remained seated. Cole’s disturbingly large shadow was cast over us both—the shade refreshing, yet lurid.
“Hell nah, bru. Too late for that; you’re going to have to man up,” Cole noticed the red brick that Noel harbored in his right palm like a Catholic man clutches a cross at an exorcism. “What are you going to do with that brick, pussy?” Cole started after Noel; Noel stepped back and chunked the brick at the bear of a man; he hit Cole—you probably couldn’t miss the fucker he was so big. Noel’s brick landed on Cole’s shoulder and then bounced off and screeched on the concrete. The effect, minimal. The brick left its red-orange dust particles, its residue, to mesh with the almost black blood that seeped past a skin now wrinkled on Cole’s shoulder. Cole looked at his wound and then roared back like a lion claiming the corpse of his prey as hyenas attempt to rip off a leg or an arm of the bloody and dying animal. Noel shuffled forward attempting to snatch another brick, but this time Cole grabbed him by his slim neck—I thought he was going to bite into it or rip it off his frame—and punched Noel’s face ferociously. I couldn’t decide what sounded worst: the clang of the brick on the concrete or the crunch of Cole’s fist against Noel’s face. I tried to pull him out because he looked like he was out cold, but his crew lunged at me. I took two: one to the right ear and the other landed violently on my lip. I got away from the hyenas with only a busted bloodied lip, and then backed up to the steps and all I remember hearing was “I told you he was pussy.” A black Honda rolled up. Three men jumped out and only added to the fucking mess of things. They yelled shit like ‘beat his ass’ and ‘fuck him up.’ Cole was now slamming his fist into Noel’s face and a few of his crew would come in to kick the shit out his ribs; Rico was pulling his Js off of Noel’s feet—I felt sorry for him laying there with arms and legs spread, and ashamed of myself. I’d been the pussy of the hood for years: because I didn’t go to T.J; because I didn’t sling or fight; I didn’t want to add to the list of reasons letting a friend die amongst a herd of animals like that kid in Chicago—Fuck that. I ran inside, grabbed the Glock and then was outside near the steps in the most life ruining type of situation I’d ever been in.
The glock was hot in my fingers and I pointed it with fury, “who’s the pussy now?” I asked. I looked to see if Mrs. Montgomery was watching, but she wasn’t—I remember thinking she must’ve been afraid, and angered that her afternoon of staring at the two Mexican boys was ruined by a pack of hungry hyenas.
BANG! Shit. Cole screamed like a bitch and grabbed at his chest; his fingers were covered with blood.
Mexicans are always telling you not to point a gun at anybody, not even if it isn’t loaded; they claim that at times the devil will have it go off just to fuck with people—just to be mischievous. My dad even has a story like that. He was bed-ridden for weeks and in his boredom he’d hold a 12-gauge pointing it at different things in the room in an attempt to simulate the hunt. His sister, Elvira, was passing by and he pointed it at her when the gun went off. He barely missed her and made a hole the size of a watermelon in the wall. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I would’ve never opened my mouth with that superstitious bull shit in a court room. I then started thinking of self-defense as my strongest possibility; Noel, brown and poor as he was, was still a citizen and I was defending him from a sure death; and I was on my lawn—my property.
I started worrying; Cole wasn’t falling and he’d stopped squirming; he was grabbing around his chest and abdomen searching for a hole. The vultures circled him—and as they did I saw Mrs. Montgomery holding a 22. She shot the gun and not me, and most definitely not Satan. She hadn’t shot Cole either—she’d fired one into the blazin sun. The blood on Cole’s hand was Noel’s, and now his big ass was clowning me along with the rest of them.
“Damn, is that wrinkly shit across the street some shell-shocked soldier from Nam?” they were laughing and cursing and clowning on me—they didn’t give a shit about the weapon in my hand anymore.
“What’s next? Is she going to give you her Grand Torino?” They got a good laugh out of that one and then Cole got serious again:
“Put the gun down pussy, so I can whoop your ass like I did Noel,” I was asked twice in a short span of time to put the glock down, but I wasn’t going to drop it then; the second time I was asked or commanded I obeyed.
I heard police sirens above The World Is Yours and saw red and blue. The gang unit was turning the corner and I was glad—glad, and curious to see red and blue and hear that siren that was finally on time. I started thinking about any possible danger that I might’ve been in: I had a gun in my hand and Noel was next to me lying there unconscious, wet with blood and broken by fierce punching and kicking. What were they thinking? I started hoping I was the Invisible Man, holding the invisible gun; but the black of the weapon rested clearly in my grip; the steal cold in my palm now; my legs liquid, and my heart pounding like feds with warrants breaking down the doors of killers and drug dealers; my chest about to burst with the sounds of the pounding of my heart, track 4 of Illmatic, and of red and blue sirens. Across the street Mrs. Montgomery was leaning on her 22 rifle and saying something I was unable to comprehend; she was pointing with her long and wrinkly finger towards Cole and the running, flying vultures as they attempted to escape; they were running now in all directions and jumping fences and over cars; the black Honda was pealing out, and one of Cole’s crew was trying to jump in with them; they pushed him out and he quickly made his way to his feet and surpassed the pack of running bastards—either he was the most scared and pushed by a violent fear of being caught or he was the most athletic of the pack of thugs. Rico had his Js in his arms trying not to lose them for the second time in a week. And, two houses down, in her red motorized wheelchair, holding her red flashlight, Crack Head Betty was motoring near the scene calling out monotonously: ‘Langston, darling; Langston boy. Here, boy; here, Langston boy.’
“Put the gun down,” the officers yelled with rage; two of them: eyes large and white with streaks of crimson, focused on the armed target, arms tense and fingers tight and fastened to their black 9 millimeters, their badge glowing brilliantly amongst a sea of black and starched uniform, and their thick brows collecting beads of sweat. I could sense their thoughts—if I moved funny I’d be shot down on my own brick strewn lawn. Everything became quiet and still; track number 4, however persisted, as if it were set on being the theme song for us all that afternoon:
Whose world is this? The world is yours, the world is yours
It’s mine, It’s mine, It’s mine
Whose world is this?
“Yes, sir,” I said.
Whose world is this?
I threw the gun down just like they’d asked, and then I raised my hand.
It’s mine, It’s mine, It’s mine.