“Joe! Come and eat!”
The tile floor in the bathroom felt cold against his bare feet.
“I am coming!” He shouted back angrily. He was drying himself quickly in the steamy bathroom. Everything, even the towel was damp or dripping from the condensation.
“Joseph Edward!” His mother shouted again. She was not going to let her son leave the house until he had his dinner.
Joe glanced at his watch, a graduation gift he got after finishing the eighth grade. He had fifteen minutes to spare. Tonight was the first football game of the season, and he was not going to be late.
“I am coming!” He shouted back again. His voice echoed off the tile walls. He forced his damp legs into his steamy jeans. They clung to his skin; he had to massage them up his legs like casing on a sausage. It was the same problem when he tried to get his shirt on. The sleeves stuck to his arms, so he chose the quick solution, and rolled them up past his elbow.
“Damn!” He muttered to himself, he found an extra button at the bottom.
“It’s getting cold!” His mother called back to him. This time her tone of voice carried the threat: be there now for you were not going. Joe knew it was more than a threat. It was a promise, a statement of fact. He ran into the kitchen barefoot and took a seat at the table. His shoes could wait. His dinner could not.
He found his father and older sister finishing their meal. His plate was ready for him. It was a steamy combination of rice, beans, and beef, his favorite, but then everything was his favorite. He grabbed a tortilla and began to scoop up a piece of meat. Stealing a glance at the clock above the stove, he felt relieved to find he still had fifteen minutes.
“Use your fork.” His father warned. “The caveman ate with their fingers, but we are civilized.”
Joe grabbed his fork at once before his father could start his lecture on culture, manners, dignity, and manhood.
“You comb yourself before you go.” His mother looked scornfully at his still dripping hair. And you be a gentleman out there and don’t get into trouble.” She was at the stove talking to Joe over her shoulder.” You stay away from the pachucos and the marijuanos and those other people.” That really meant, stay away from anyone she did not know.
“Don’t eat so fast! You sound like a pig!” Joe’s sister scolded.
“Great!” Joe told himself. He would get in trouble if he said it out loud.
“All that’s left is for the dog to start in on me.”
“Mom! Can you hear him? He’s making disgusting noises!” Joe was trying to act hungry, but that first mouthful of food stuck in his throat. It felt like chewing on a dry ball of cotton. He shoved another morsel into his mouth and pretended to enjoy every molecule.
“Patience.” He told himself, glancing from father to mother to sister. He was waiting for that magical moment when his father and sister excused themselves and left table. That left the final obstacle, his mother. He was waiting for her to start opening the refrigerator to put things away. He waited, slowly and deliberately swallowing, forcing each mouthful down his throat. Then the moment happened. He leaned towards the garbage pail and emptied his plate, then dashed out of the kitchen in one quick and graceful move.
Seven minutes to go. He checked his watch again. He had plenty of time to finish dressing so he combed his fingers through his hair. Good enough, he thought, then walked toward the door.
“Did you brush your teeth?” The voice of his mother came at him.
How did she know where I was?
“You go back and put on your sweater. You don’t want to catch a cold.” Joe remembered the taste of castor oil and his mother’s other cure all treatment, the enema bottle.
“I’m never going to get out of here.” He muttered as he went back for this sweater. He draped it over his shoulders and tied the arms below his chin. He moved toward the door again, this time more slowly. He reached his arm out. No problem. His hand touched the doorknob. Still no problem. He turned the handle. No problem. He opened the door, ready to leave at last. He breathed in the late summer air.
“You are not going to kiss your mama goodbye?” She sounded hurt and abandoned.
Joe finally stepped out into the air and breathed in the sense of freedom. It hit him like a shot of adrenaline. He walked quickly around the corner and walked two more houses down to where Bill lived.
Bill’s mother opened the door. “Come in, Joseph.” She smiled. Joe tried to smile back but all he could think about was her transparent skin and the purple veins on her forehead that clearly stood out. She was tall and slender and white. She was wearing a white nurse’s uniform, white stockings and shoes. Even her hair was white.
“Sit down.” She said brightly. Bill’s mother was the only person he knew what spoke to him as a grown-up, but it did not feel right. “Billy will be out in just a moment.”
Joe sat down politely, locking his knees together and holding his hands in his lap. It was like waiting in a dentist office, he thought. Bill’s mother sat down across from him and looked at him and smiled. Joe heard himself swallowing. It did not seem right for an adult to be smiling at him. Something must be wrong; he was starting to suspect something. Bill can’t go. He listened with interest to the motor of the refrigerator and tried not to make stomach noises.
What does our refrigerator sound like?
He could hear Bill in the bathroom brushing his teeth, gargling and spitting. Now the toilet was flushing. It seemed so loud.
I wonder if the neighbors could hear him taking a dump.
He heard the bathroom door open and Bill walked casually out and strolled to his room.
Wow! Bill has a real bathrobe all his own!
“Bye Mom!” Was all Bill said when he was finally ready. They were out the door and into the street. There was no emotional outburst. He was expecting a dramatic exit like the one he went through.
“Strange!” Joe observed.
The air outside the house was warm and motionless. It made the town outside his skin seem quieter than he had expected. He was excited to be finally underway, happy to be doing something with his friend. When his older brother and his sister’s went out, they looked so grown-up.
It’s my turn.
“We got to hurry.” Bill said.” Jim is going to meet us behind the P & X Market.”
“When did this plan start?” He did not like that feeling of being left out. Bill and Jim often did things on their own. It made sense sometimes because Joe had to be home from school by 3:30 each day. It was one of his mother’s rules. One among many rules he did not like. He could go out and play again once he got home, but first he had to check in.
They walked quickly now and Joe became hypnotized by the steady rhythmic pounding of their heels.
It’s supposed to be the end of summer. Yet he saw that the summer leaves still clung to the trees. Only a few of them were turning brown around the edges.
“Did you see the old beams that were in the old Annex building?” Bill asked.
Home was starting to feel far behind now. Joe’s mother and sister must be doing the dishes by now. His father was probably in the garden working before the dark forced him inside.
By now I would have been watching some dumb old TV show.
“Yeah! It’s a real clear from my science class. They make a lot of noise tearing down that old building.”
Three blocks later they found that Jim had grown tired of waiting. They found him breaking bottles against the wall behind the liquor store. Jim’s people were from the Philippines. His family was Catholic so it was okay to be friends with him.
Here enters another of my mama’s rules. She wants me to hang out with my own kind.
That was always a problem for him. His grandparents were from Mexico. Both his mother and father were born and raised in the US. They were both Spanish-speaking and considered themselves to be Mexican.
“What am I? I don’t speak Spanish. Who are my kind?”
It was dark by the time they arrived at school. The closer Joe got, the more excitement he felt. Low riders and customized cars roared loudly down the streets. Grownups and students of all ages were walking hurriedly to the gates.
I am out with the big guys. Then he realized that he was only with Bill and Jim, freshman like himself.
They walked into the bright glow of the Stadium. Joe could not see it completely yet, but between the sounds of roaring engines and tires squealing in the street, he could hear and even feel the throbbing drums of the marching band. He felt his stomach twist and he tried to force the others to walk a little faster. The drums were sounding louder as they got closer.
“We get in free, don’t we?” He asked. “We’re wearing white shirts and our spirit ribbons.” He saw some people paying for their tickets and other walking right through that gate.
“Come on.” Bill said. He acted embarrassed that a companion of his should ask such a silly question. They walked through the entry gate easily. Joe felt certain someone was going to pull him aside and make him buy a ticket, or worse, send them back home.
The drums thundered loudly. “Beat Buchser!” The cheerleaders were bouncing and dancing, and urging the fans to chant louder. Joe followed his friends through the milling spectators. Everything seemed to be in sharper focus under the bright stadium lights, sharper than he had ever noticed before.
Bill led the way past the sections for the seniors, juniors, and sophomores, and found a place to sit in the freshman section.
“Hey Joe.” Bill said. “We’ll be right back. We’re just going down there.” He pointed to the snack stands to the side of the playing field. He wanted to go down with them, but he felt uninvited. He did begin to feel relieved when he saw another familiar face from school sitting nearby. Most of his friends from middle school went to Buchser High which was located closer to the town of Sunnyvale where the old orchards were being bulldozed to make room for housing.
It was almost time for the kickoff and the game to begin. Joe looked around the bleachers. He felt a sense of relief when he saw that almost all of the spectators were wearing white shirts and spirit ribbons.
“One . . . Two . . . three . . . Six. Give Buchser the eighty-six!”
That felt like a real dumb thing to say. He told himself. He looked around cautiously. He could see and hear the cheerleaders saying that silly phrase and he could see everyone around them repeating it and loudly. It was fun. He could see that in the faces all around him. It was okay for him to be saying these silly things also.
“Go Cougars! Go!” The girls were trying to get the crowds to clap along with them. Joe felt less awkward doing that the more he noticed everyone else following the girls lead.
He moved his attention to the girls and their short skirts and brightly colored uniforms.
“Their parents let them jump around and show so much leg?” He realized he was asking and irrelevant question.
“I wish I could be out there.” His eyes drifted to the last of the warm-up routines both teams were going through on the field. Both sides moved together, grunted together. They’re shiny helmets seem to sparkle in the stadium lights.
“Join the football team?! Are you crazy?” His mother said in complete horror. “Do you want to break your neck? Not in a million years will that happen!”
They seemed so close.
“If only.” Joe had to settle for disappointment.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” The announcer spoke slowly. His voice echoed. “Let’s give a hearty welcome to last season’s Valley Champion varsity football team! The Santa Clara Cougars of 1961!”
“Everybody stood up shouting.” Maybe it will be all right if I joined in too. The drums were banging. The Song Girls and Cheer Leaders were bouncing. Everyone was on their feet, clapping as the team ran through the goal posts. Their jerseys were purple and helmets were gold and seemed to sparkle in the bright stadium lights. Fireworks exploded overhead. Both teams then lined themselves and respectfully faced the flag.
“Please remain standing for our National Anthem.” Joe put his hand over his heart and felt proud to be an American. The spotlight brightened the flag. It hung limply in the warm night air. Smoke from the fireworks wafted over her. The band played solemnly and it ended with the crashing of drums, cymbals, and applause. Both teams then rushed off the field and set up for the kickoff.
The starting gun went off. It was halftime. Already. Tie score, 12 to 12.
“Hey Bill did you see Martin . . .” Joe’s question was never finished. It was interrupted by two empty spaces next to him. He looked around. No. By now there were plenty of familiar faces but no Jim and Bill.
Where could they be? He looked down toward the concession stand. They’re e not there either. They’re in the boys’ room. Good idea. He walked down to the restrooms, took care of himself. Nope. They’re not in there. Where could they be? Then, he remembered, they never came back. They were gone the whole first half of the game.
He returned to his place in the bleachers and sat, and stared at the back of Lester Gomez’s head. The marching band was in the middle of its routine. The night air had become cooler. Daniel and Claudia were staring into each other’s eyes and holding hands. He became embarrassed and looked away.
Everybody laughed at me for weeks when Bill spread the rumour that Mary Jane Becker had a crush on me.
I didn’t know that George liked Paula.
The band was returning to the bleachers.
Bill got caught copying my math test. He told Mr. Silva that he paid me five dollars to let him. I had to do a week of detention for that.
The Cheerleaders lined up at the goal post to once again welcome the team back for the second half.
He sent for those dirty magazines and used my name and address. I’m still being punished for that.
Everyone stood up as the teams came back to the field.
I’ll take the back way home, down Monroe Street. That way I’ll be sure not to run into those guys.
Resentment ran down his throat like scalding water and he fought back the tears that were forming in his eyes.
Joe remained seated. He will did not watch the flight of the ball as the second half kickoff got the game underway. He wanted to enjoy the game, at first, but now he sat passively and waited for it to end.
Santa Clara won. It looked like a promising year for the defending champions.
Big deal. He made an imaginary square with his fingers and pretended to deal some cards. He hated himself for feeling abandoned.
What did I do? He followed the throng and jostled slowly toward the exit. The drums of the marching band were still banging. Cars outside the stadium will were revving their engines, and honking their horns. One sound caught his ear. He looked around.
What was that?
“Joe! Down here!”
The exit is getting closer. He pushed himself through the crowd toward the gate.
“Hey Joe.” Mike Powell, a friend he knew from junior high, nudged him. “Bill and Jim are calling you. Down on the track.”
He could not stop himself. He turned and looked. Bill and Jim were waving up at him. They were beckoning him to come down. He looked, and watched them wave at him. He exhaled a long deep breath, then started back down toward the track. They seem to be in a hurry as he bumped his way down the steps.
“Let’s go!” Bill shouted as soon as he got close to them. The three of them began to run. They dodged through and around the slow walking groups and individuals. They ran across the playing field into the boys’ gym, then out the other side. Then they crossed the street through the shadowy campus buildings. Their crashing feet echoed off the canyon of brick between the two decaying classroom buildings. They ran for three more blocks, until they reached the city library. There they stopped to catch their breath among the shadow of the trees that circled the old library building.
“What are we running for?” Joe asked between gulps of air.
“Don’t be a moron.” Bill answered.
Joe looked at Bill. He tried to understand how he had asked a moronic question. He thought of another question but decided not to ask it. Instead he decided to get up from the cool grass. Just beyond the circle of trees he saw the blue and red glow of the neon sign. He could see it clearly beyond the shadows of the trees. He had never been inside the Santa Clara Bowling Alley before but he knew that there must be a telephone booth and there.
“I’m going to call my parents to come pick me up.” He said as he started walking away. Bill signalled with his head Jim. They jumped up and caught up with him.
“Hey come on.” Bill pleaded. “We were just kidding. We just like running.”
Joe stared at the red and blue sign. He read the smaller sign by the door. “Telephone inside.” it said. He shut his eyes and breathed out all the air in his lungs.
“Let’s go.” He said, listening to the sound of the bowling balls rolling down the alleys and the crashing of the pins. He looked back at the swinging doors, and with deep regret started walking again.
“Hey! Do you remember Sergio?” Bill asked. They reached Main Street, then turned and walked past the darkened store windows.
“Yeah.” Joe answered without interest. He breathed out again. He just wanted to be home.
“He was at the game. He’s even bigger now.” Bill related other former classmates they saw last in junior high. Joe listened, or at least he kept quiet. He felt relieved to have now reached the end of the downtown area.
Next we could cut through Fremont School. Then we would be halfway home. He kept his thoughts to himself, and listened.
He listened to the sound of their footsteps, to the striking of their heels. He listened to the sound of footsteps approaching from behind.
“Frank and Joey V. were over there. Remember them? They were always trying to beat the crap out of us.”
Bill’s sentences were interrupted when he too heard sounds from behind. They turned and saw four silhouettes turn the corner.
“Run Joe!” Bill was already in a full sprint. Jim was not far behind.
“Let’s get out of here!” Jim was running as fast as he could.
“Not me.” Joe said. “I have had enough of your games.” He turned his head to look back. He saw a flash of light. Then he heard the sound of himself collapsing to the ground. He heard the sound of himself being kicked. He heard the shouts and running feet fade into silence. He felt himself spinning into darkness.
Wet. Wet. Fizz. Water. Cold. Dark.
The lawn sprinkler fizzed gently, sending a mushroom shaped spray to the lawn. Joe slowly became aware of the sound of it. He noticed that his eyes were closed and cautiously opened one. He saw glistening pieces of a Coke bottle scattered inches from his face. He focused his vision beyond that and studied the sprinkler and its pattern of spray.
He began to notice that he was getting wet.
“Wonder what time it is.” He checked his watch. The crystal was shattered. “I guess it really can’t take a licking.” He remembered the television commercial that had a watch like his strapped to a propeller.
He looked beyond the water spray and saw a porch light. He recognized the house. It was by the post office, a block from downtown.
“I know where I am. Yellow. Yeah.” The concept of color came back to him. “The house is yellow. I’m on Katherine Street.” He raised his hand to his forehead and upon contact he felt exploding ribbons of pain.
Wet. Wet. Fizz. Spinning. Twisting. Twirling.
Rotating. Nausea. Bill. Run. Home.
“No!” Joe shouted. He rolled to his stomach and slowly pushed himself up to his knees. He could get no higher. His dizziness gained control, and he flopped back into the drenched lawn.
“Home.” He lifted his head and felt himself spinning wildly.
“Home.” This time he tried to move a little slower.
“Tree.” He guided himself deliberately to an old shade tree across the sidewalk. He crawled to the trunk, careful not to make any sudden moves and stopped when he could smell the bark. It was the smell of wet wood. He inhaled deeply the scent of the tree and realized he was still in the spray of the sprinkler.
He made himself shift his weight and slowly moved his left hand toward the tree. His face was inches from the trunk but his hand seemed to take forever to get to the bark. Finally, he shifted his weight again and slowly guided his other hand to the tree.
“Yes.” He felt both hands support him and moved his left hand higher, then his right.
Now. My leg. If I could move it, I could stand. An urging gathered in his stomach then rose into his chest. It went higher and higher until his dinner exploded from his throat.
Tree. Home. Dizzy. Wet. Home. Dizzy. Wet.
Tree. He woke up and discovered that he was stretched across the sidewalk.
I got to climb up again.
His teeth felt rough. He tried to spit out the acid taste of vomit him in his mouth. Carefully, he climbed up to the trunk until he was in a standing position.
Hey Lord. Thank you for this tree.
He leaned against the rough bark and estimated the distance to the next tree.
Too far. Too far. He gently pushed himself away from the tree and stood on his own. His first step landed flat footed, he could not control his ankle or his feet.
The shock of that step stirred up flurries of dizziness and nausea. He tried a second step. This time he was careful not to step so hard.
“Better.” The next tree seemed such a great distance away. He took a third step, slowly. He moved one cautious step after another, being careful to keep his balance until he reached the next tree. He leaned against it and looked back to the place where he had fallen.
What happened? It came back to him. Bill and Jim ran away. They should have warned me. They should have told me that some guys were after them.
He remembered the flash of light and the Coke bottle hitting him above the eye and sound of his body as he was being beaten all over.
He did not remember when but he noticed that he was seeing out of one eye only. He then noticed the taste of blood in his mouth and that his ribs hurt when he tried to take a breath.
Go through the orchard. Lots of trees to lean on there.
His left leg was not moving the way they expected. The monastery.
I can lean against the monastery wall until I get to Wilson. Wilson was the junior high he attended. Then I can walk along the fence and get to the orchard.
Now he had a plan and it was time to take another step. Gently, he moved his leg forward and shifted his weight. The next tree seemed impossibly far away.
I’m never going to be able to go out again after this.
Joe woke up to find the spinning inside him and slowed considerably. The ringing tone in his ear was almost gone. He felt relieved to no longer see flashing spots of light. He listened to the sounds of his mother doing the housework. He smelled the cleanness of the air outside his window. He wanted to be under the blue sky and fluffy clouds drifting by.
The next day Joe took the city bus to school. His leg and knee were not ready for a long walk. He sat in the back, embarrassed to show his blackened eye and swollen lower lip. He nodded to his friends and smiled but he was sure all the way to the school bus stop they were sneaking glances at him.
He stepped off the bus.
“Hey Joe!” Bill’s voice rang out. He had to turn his body to see Bill standing with a group of friends. “Why didn’t you run? You stupid asshole! We told you to run.”
Joe stood still and watched their laughter. Bill must have told them the story and failed to tell them the part about him running away and leaving him alone.
“Why didn’t you help me when you saw me go down?” He tried to say it loudly but he could not draw enough air into his lungs.
“Are you crazy?” Bill shouted out.” Those guys almost caught up with us. You shouldn’t of been so dumb.” Bill crossed his eyes and pretended to be crashing to the ground.
He won. Everyone there was laughing, everyone but Joe. He turned slowly and limped up the stairs and into the hallway. He entered his first period classroom and sat in silence until the teacher started the lesson. That image of Bill and Jim, Mike and Tom, and those others remained in his eyes. All of those out there laughing, their chests heaving in hilarity. He saw the flash of the bottle flying toward his head. He saw his friends again. Then he made the connection, and that was the last time he said anything to any of them again.
(San Jose, California 1968)