Why Jesus Santos Didn't Lose His Faith
Although I am only sixteen years old, I have a story that no one has ever told before. A lot of people won't believe me, but it's true. It is the story of my life, the life of Jesus Santos.
Every story should have a beginning. Mine has none. I was born, I think, in Sonora, Mexico. But when I was still a baby, some guy--maybe my father--brought me and my mother to live in Arizona. Then he left us here, or else he died. When I ask my mother to explain, she says, "There is nothing to explain. Everything happens for a reason." So as far as I know, my life begins with my first memories, when I was four years old.
People tell me I was a very strange kid. Even my mother says it. We lived together in the little house she still rents from my Tio Eduardo. All day, she says, she would hear me through the door, talking in my room. She used to think I was alone, but I was talking with God. We hung out together, and if I ever got bored, God would make up something to do. Like one summer there was a monsoon rain, so we were stuck in the house. God said, "Go look outside," so I went to the window. And God said, "Look at the river I just made in the yard. When the rain stops, let's go fishing." After that, whenever it rained really hard, we waited until it stopped, and then we went fishing in the biggest puddle on the block.
Sometimes the whole street filled like a big muddy sink with water from the rain, and I would fish off the curb. There was a boy a few years older than me who lived next door. His name was Danny Romero. One day he saw me and he said, "What do you think you're doing, kid?"
So I told him.
"Don't be a guey," he said. Then he went into his house and he didn't talk to me no more that day. God told me he wasn't ready yet, but this boy was going to be my best friend. Then a few days later, when he came home from school, he saw me sitting on his front steps. He said, "You going to get out of my way? Or do I have to step on you?"
I didn't say nothing.
"What are you so happy about?" he said. He looked down at me for a long time. Then he said, "Hey, kid. Do me a favor. Next time you go fishing, sell me a fish."
When I shook my head, he didn't like that.
"What's the matter?" he said. "I'm not good enough to buy your stinking fish, which you made up in your crazy head?"
I said I had to feed my mother, but he could come over and eat with us.
"Orale, que no?" he said. But after that he really liked me. He stopped calling me tonto and guey. My real name is Jesus, so he called me Chuy--the nickname for Jesus. It sounds like Chewy. And that's what everybody started calling me. But Danny was the first.
Pretty soon it was Danny and me together all the time, just as God said it was going to be. God gave me Danny for a friend, and then He went away. I didn't hear His voice no more, and He didn't hang out at my house. Anyway, I was always too busy at Danny's place. He lived with his mother and father. His big brother, Oscar, was in the Marines, so Danny had his own room. One time his mother showed me a picture of Oscar. She said he was a sergeant already, and Danny said he didn't talk about nothing else except the Marines.
That Christmas, Oscar came home and Danny was right. Every time I saw him, he kept telling me what it means to be a Marine. He explained it this way. He said if anybody ever hurt him or they tried to hurt his family, all of the guys he knew in the Marines would go over to the guy's house, and they would beat his ass bloody. And if some pinche vaboso was to hurt another Marine, or if he raped the Marine's sister or his girlfriend or his mother, Oscar would find that guy and kill him. And then he'd go after the guy's whole family and kill everybody, even his cousins and his dog.
"Being a Marine," Oscar said, "it's like being Catholic. Once you join, they got you for life."
"Did you make that up?" Danny said.
I think he was tired of hearing about Marines. We were all in the bedroom, the one he used to share with Oscar. Danny was sipping a beer and I had a soda, but Oscar was drinking scotch.
"I got to go," said Danny. "I got to go see Lenora. I'll be back in an hour."
"Hey, you only need an hour?" Oscar said, and that made Danny laugh on his way out. I started getting up to leave, but Oscar told me to stay. He said, "You got any brothers?" I shook my head, and then he said, "Now you do," and he slapped my knee.
Then he made me a promise. He said he would teach me everything about women.
"I have come to learn," Oscar said, "that not all women are the same, even though they act alike most of the time. See, there are four types."
So I asked him, what types?
"I'm going to tell you," said Oscar, and he poured a little whiskey into my soda can. "They range from short to tall, fat to skinny, dumb to smart, sane to insane. In other words, Chuy, there are all kinds of women, which makes tracking down your other half kind of difficult--"
By the time Danny got back, Oscar was really into it. He kept telling stories all about women, and drinking whiskey from the bottle. Then he said he didn't care that Danny was a pain in his ass, he really loved his little brother. He said, "If anyone tried to hurt Danny, they're dead. It's that simple. Dead."
I didn't say nothing, I was so happy just to be there with such great guys. I wasn't ready when Oscar asked me if I had a girlfriend.
"He don't have a girlfriend," Danny said. "He's too young."
"Bull shit," Oscar said. "There ain't no such thing." But when he looked at me some more, I think he changed his mind. "Anyway," he said, "you got a mother, right?"
"Leave him alone," Danny said. "He's just a kid."
"Hey, kid," said Oscar. "You think your mother's always going be there for you?" He shook his head. Then he looked over at Danny. "You listening to me, suave? "
Danny turned to the wall. "You drink too much" was all he said.
"You can't count on nothing," Oscar told me. "Some day your mother won't be there. Say you get married. And your wife likes somebody better and she takes your kid and she leaves. Where you going to look for them, man? Which way did they go?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"There's only one thing that lasts forever, man. And it ain't your girlfriend. Tell him, Danny."
"The Marines," Danny said. He was pretty pissed at his brother, but he didn't say why. And I didn't figure it out until later on.
Danny had a girlfriend. She grew up in Texas, but a couple years ago she moved here with her mother. All the teachers called her Sylba because that's what it said in the computer, but her real name was Lenora, and that's what we called her. She had long black hair that grew down to her butt. But while she was talking, she used to raise it up off her neck. She'd hold it like a cat's tail and stick it on top of her head, or toss it over her shoulder. Sometimes I could hardly understand what she was saying, my eyes were so busy watching her hair move around.
Danny was crazy about her. He said they were getting married after they graduated in the spring. He talked about her all time until one day, and then he didn't talk about her no more. If I even brought up Lenora, he'd changed the subject. He'd talk about me and Carla instead. He'd say, "What would you do if some guy tried to fuck around with Carla? You wouldn't take it, right?"
Carla was just a girl at school. She was a couple of years older than me. I was just a freshman, but she sat in my morning class because she kept flunking history. There was no one else her age, so she talked to me. And sometimes we hung out after school, but Carla had a boyfriend. I never met him, but she always made me leave when she got a call on her cell, and I figured it was him and he was for real.
Anyway, she was the Carla that Danny meant. He said if any guy tried to bother her, and if I asked him for help, he would go after that guy. He would handle it for me because by then we were like brothers.
All this happened the year of Desert Storm. Oscar got sent to Iraq, and everybody was really scared for him. When he sent home letters, Danny used to read them in the kitchen, and his mom always cried, but his father didn't say nothing but his face got so dark I couldn't even see what he looked like anymore.
Then, about a month later, Oscar came home. He flew back to Tucson, to Davis-Monthon, the Air Force base. Everybody was real happy and saying how glad they were that the war was over. "It ain't over," Oscar said, but he didn't explain. I stayed for dinner that night because Danny's mother asked me. I felt sorry for her. She wouldn't even sit at the table. She just kept getting more food the whole time while Oscar talked about the bombs and the bodies. His father was in Vietnam, so after awhile he had to leave the room. Then nobody talked any more, but after dinner, we went into Danny's room, and that's when Oscar told us the truth.
He said he was only in combat for four days. "Four fuckin days, man!" He didn't kill nobody. He didn't hurt nobody. He was real depressed.
When Oscar was growing up, he was the fattest kid in school. "He was a real freak," Danny said. "When he was fourteen, he weighed, like three hundred pounds. He couldn't bend down. I had to tie his shoes."
Kids were laughing at him, so Oscar dropped out. He just hung around the house eating tacos and watching TV, until one day he saw an ad for the Marines. It was full of young guys--thin, strong guys--driving tanks and flying helicopters and running big computers. So right then, he decided to enlist. He got into weights, and he took drugs to make himself bigger. Pretty soon Danny couldn't hardly recognize him no more.
Oscar had a funny shape. He looked like a door, flat and wide. The night we met, he wanted me to punch his stomach. He kept yelling, "Harder. Harder! " till pretty soon my knuckles hurt too much. Danny said, "He's ready for war." But when a war finally came, all that he saw was four days of fighting. And that's why he got so pissed.
But a week later, someone called from the base. It was good news, I guess. Oscar looked real happy. He said he had to leave on a secret mission, and he might not come back. He said we might read about it in the papers, or maybe we would never know what happened. But if he ended up dead, Danny was to take all his stuff. "Anything you want," said Oscar. "Just take it."
The next morning he was gone. Then, for awhile we looked in the paper every day, but we never read about no secret mission, and pretty soon we stopped looking, there was so much going on at home.
The first thing going on was that me and Carla had sex. I didn't expect it to happen. One day we were sitting on her bed, and while she was talking to me she started touching my legs. I didn't say nothing, but then she pointed at my lap and said, "Hey, what's that?"
I got really hard and it was pushing up my pants like a big stake.
She said, "What are you going to do now?" She sounded scared, which was really strange because then she had to show me what to do. I couldn't even find where to put it, but all the while, she kept saying, "Don't make me do this. " And after I came, she told me I was really bad.
When I left her house, I didn't want to go back there no more. I was glad when she didn't show up at school. She stayed out for a week. Then one day she surprised me after class in the hall. She came up to me and told me she was pregnant.
"Did you see a doctor?" I said.
She said she didn't have to. She could tell.
I said, "It's only been a week."
Then she got really mad, like I called her a liar. She said now, thanks to me, she couldn't finish high school. She'd have to take care of a baby. And when her parents heard about it, they would throw her out, and she wouldn't have no place to go. She and the baby would be living on the street and I was to blame for everything.
I didn't know what to say, so I said I'd think of something. But everyone I went to for advice, they just said to forget about it. Carla was sleeping with Benny Mendoza, and everybody knew it.
"Bull shit! " Carla said. "If anybody's talking shit about me, let them say it to my face. Listen, all I ever did was, one time I smoked some weed with Benny at a party. Then we both crashed out. So in the morning everybody starts to get ideas."
What I heard about Benny Mendoza, he was in prison for a year. He got caught for selling drugs, but they let him out because he had a bad kidney, and they didn't want to pay to fix it. I didn't know him, but I used to see him around. He was a skinny guy with lazy eyes. Instead of a beard, he had a little tail of hair under the middle of his lip.
One night I went over to Danny's house to talk about my problem, but he got mad at me. He said Benny Mendoza had been saying stuff. "He's laughing at you, Chuy. He's a real piece of shit. Hey, don't you get it?" Danny said. "She don't want to tell her parents it's Benny's kid."
Well, I told him, maybe it was true. But I still felt sorry for Carla because now she wouldn't have no place to live, which isn't good for a baby. I said, "I got to help her."
He said, "You crazy, man? It ain't your kid."
But I told him, "It's still a baby."
"Hijole! " he said. "He's laughing at you!"
I couldn't figure it out. Why was Danny getting madder than me? He kept shaking his fist and swearing all kinds of stuff he was going do . . . But I got it wrong. See, he wasn't thinking about Benny, or Carla, or me. Danny was thinking about some other guy and Lenora. And this was my big, dumb mistake.
Finally, he couldn't take it no more, so got off the bed and went into the closet. When he came back he had a gun, Oscar's gun. He said Oscar left him this gun so he could look after things.
"Oh, no. You'll get in trouble," I said.
We had a big fight then. It lasted a long time. I wouldn't leave until he promised not to use the gun. But Danny wouldn't promise, and finally it got so late, I had to go home.
After that night, I didn't see too much of Danny. But this was his last year in school, and a lot of seniors were cutting classes. I asked his friends how he was doing, but nobody saw him much. Talk to Hector, they said. They meant Hector Lopez, the catcher on Danny's team. But it was always hard to get Hector Lopez to talk, and when I asked, he just kept shaking his head.
"You know what's wrong?" I said.
"Yeah," said Hector. Then he thought about it for a long time till finally he said, "He's going through a lot of changes."
I waited another week. Then I went to Danny's house. His mother said he was in his room, and she looked kind of worried. She walked me to his door and knocked. She said, "Danny? Open up. It's Chuy. He wants to talk to you."
After awhile, he let me in, but he didn't say a word till his mother left. Even then he didn't say too much, but finally he asked about Carla. He just said, "You still with that bitch?"
"I don't know," I said because I didn't want to make him mad.
"I got to do something," he told me. Then I saw the gun on the bed. When I looked back at Danny, he said, "Go home now, Chuy."
But I sat down and wouldn't move.
"I'm going to kill him," he said, and I still was thinking he meant Benny Mendoza.
Then we heard his mother coming down the hall. She knocked again, but the door was still open, so she stuck in her head. She said it was Lenora on the phone.
"Shit," was all Danny said.
"She's waiting," said his mother. "You want to talk to her?"
"Tell her-- I'll tell her," he said.
Then he rolled off the bed and left me in his room with the gun. I didn't know what was going on. What did it mean when your friend is going through changes? Why did he get so mad? Why did he want to kill a guy on account of me . . . These were all the things I wondered. And then I picked up the gun. It was big and heavy, but I stuck it under my belt, and then I pulled out my tee shirt to cover the handle.
I figured if Danny cared so much, it was my job to deal with Benny Mendoza.
It was still pretty hot outside, so nobody closed the front door. When I walked down the street, I could see into every house. I saw kids in the kitchens eating dinner, and old people on the porches, listening to the radio. And there were some young guys in a driveway working on an old car. They looked about Danny's age, but I never saw them at the school. I said, "I'm looking for Benny Mendoza," but they just stared at me like they couldn't believe it. Like why would I want to find Benny Mendoza? They said they never heard of him and went on watching me till I walked away.
I must have spent another hour talking to different guys, but it was always the same, like no one ever heard the name. Then the sun set, it got dark out quick, and soon the streetlights came on. I walked over to Rosario's Cantina, up to the big window in front, and looked at myself in the glass. It was strange because I almost didn't recognize my face--a long, skinny face without an expression and big black eyes that didn't blink. Then I started to wonder what I was doing here, alone on the street with a gun. I was pretty mixed up, and I kept thinking something different. Like, should I marry Carla or dump her? Shoot Benny or throw away the gun?
There was nobody I could ask. So right there, in front of Rosario's Cantina, I tried to talk to God. This was the first time in maybe ten years, and I didn't know if I still could hear His voice, but I shut my eyes and told him my story. And then I waited a long time.
I didn't hear nothing. But after awhile, something did happen. I didn't hear His voice, but I got an idea. And I figured maybe this idea came from Him. And then I felt so glad, all of a sudden I started running back to Danny's house to tell him.
I was breathing hard when I got to his room, and when he saw me, he looked scared because he knew I took the gun.
"Did you-- ? " he said.
I never saw such fear on Danny's face until I shook my head. It was okay, I told him. "I figured it out. We don't have to kill nobody," I said. Then I tried to explain. "Suppose Carla has a baby, and he grows up, and he asks about his father? Someone's going to tell him, 'Jesus Santos is in prison because he killed your father.' The kid would hate me, right?"
Danny didn't know what I was talking about, but I kept going.
I said, "We can't do it." And then I took out the gun, and I tried to give it back to him. At first he just stared down like he didn't want it either. But then he took it from me and just stared at it awhile. He didn't want to talk. He couldn't take his eyes off the gun, so I left him in his room and went back home.
I had a big talk with my mother. I told her about Carla and the baby, and what I wanted to do. My mother wasn't mad or nothing. She just moved the hair from my eyes and shook her head and said I was a baby. Then she said I had to promise her I would wait till I was seventeen, and if I still felt the same way, she would give me permission.
When I told that to Carla, she shook her fist and shouted, "Yes! " Then she started talking real fast. She said now her parents wouldn't throw her out, and I was her Savior, and she was going to be The World's Best Wife and Mother. "You'll see, Chuy. I'm going to make you proud."
From that day on, she wanted to walk around every place, up and down the street holding my hand. She was a whole different person. She was happy all the time. Only my mother looked sad, and at night she cried in her room so I wouldn't hear, but I heard weeping through the wall.
Of course, I had to tell Danny the news. In a few months I was going to be a father, and pretty soon I'd be a husband too.
He wasn't mad or nothing. He even said, "I'm glad for you."
So then I told him he would be my best man.
"Chale, " he said, which means, Yeah, right. I don't think so.
"What's wrong?" I said because then I noticed his eyes were wet and red.
For a long time he wouldn't say nothing. But then he looked at me and said, "There's a party tonight. You want to go?"
It was a graduation party, and I was a freshman, so yeah, I was proud he asked me. And then I was happy, too, because he said he was going to stay in Tucson. Maybe he'd go to Pima, the community college. They offered him a baseball scholarship.
I said, "That's great. I'll come see you play."
"Chale," he said, "bring your kid." Like it was all a joke, but he didn't smile. And he didn't seem to care.
That night, Danny drove us to the party in his father's car. There was no place to park for a couple of blocks, so we had to walk a long way toward the noise and lights. It was a typical party--lots of beer and tequila and smoking mota. But because it was a graduation party too, someone brought a case of pink champagne, and some guy was shaking a bottle. Then his thumbs pried out the plastic cork and WHAM! He started waving the bottle around like the end of a hose, spraying foam all over. It got in the hair of Rosa and Elena Higuera, two sisters, and they screamed and covered their faces. Everyone was there that night, even Benny Mendoza. When the bottle exploded, he jumped down on the floor like he was ducking a bullet. People were laughing at him, and then the Higuera sisters started laughing, too, and shaking out their wet hair. It was a great party, a lot of people having fun.
Next time I looked around, Danny disappeared someplace, so I found a place on the sofa next to Maria Mendoza. In the first grade we sat next to each other, but even then we didn't talk much. Maria is considered the most beautiful girl in our school. None of the guys would even bother her. She's so perfect, they must think, Wow! God had a hand in this, and they leave her alone. She said she was glad to see me here. "Are you still going out with Carla?" she said.
I told her yes, Carla was pregnant and we were going to get married next year when I was seventeen.
She said, "Oh." Then she got really sad because she just broke up with her boyfriend. She said she was happy for me, but she didn't look too happy.
"What's wrong?" I said.
"Oh, I don't want to tell you," she said. Then she looked like maybe she would but she wasn't sure. So I promised to keep her secret, and even then she took a big breath and sighed. It was all kind of sad, she said, because all these years she always liked me, ever since I sat next to her in school.
"We were little kids," I said, and we started to remember. Back then, my mother used to pack my lunch in a paper bag, and I kept it in my desk. I was always hungry, so when the teacher wasn't looking I'd sneak some food and stuff my mouth.
Maria started to laugh. She said, "Chuy, do you remember--"
"Oh, yeah," I said because I knew what she meant. One day the teacher started writing on the board. But then he swung around and looked straight at me. My mouth was full, my cheeks were blow up. "It was peanut butter," I said. "I couldn't even swallow."
Maria started to laugh, and Maria's laughter is a sound as beautiful as her face. Then she stopped. "Ever since that day," she said, "I had a big crush on you, Chuy."
"Chale," I said. "You could get any guy in the school."
"Oh, no," she said. "I couldn't get the one I wanted."
I wondered who she was taking about. Who was the fool that couldn't love Maria Mendoza. I started looking around the room when all of a sudden she took my hand and she put it beside her. Even then, I didn't think too much about it. But finally, when I didn't do nothing but sit there, she pressed against my side and put her head down on my shoulder. I thought, Hijole! What's this? I'm not drunk. I'm not high. So I must be dreaming. But I felt the tickle of her hair on my cheek, and I could smell flowers from the shampoo in Maria's hair. I took that smell into my lungs, and it made me big with love, so much love that it spread out to everybody in the room. And even then it kept on going, through the walls and windows, a big warm river of my love moving down the sleepy streets.
After awhile a girl came into the room with three candles on a plate. Somebody turned off the lights as she set a couple on the floor and the third one on a window ledge. I guess she couldn't find any regular candles because these were the veladoravs my mother buys for the Virgin. Now the room felt to me like an old church lighted by fire. All the kids were pretty stoned, and some couples got down on the floor. I watched their shadows humping on the walls while the candles flickered.
By then Maria put my arm around her, but when she shut her eyes she looked asleep. I wanted to sleep next to her and become part of the dream that she was having. So I shut my eyes, but I stayed awake, listening to the sounds of noisy sex. I didn't mind these sounds. I could recognize the music in each girl's breath. Like at school when the teacher played the tape of an orchestra, and then she asked us to listen just to the trumpets or the cellos or the flutes. That's how I came to know each girl in the room. There was one who breathed in short sips--whew whew whew--and another who groaned like a ghost. There was a girl who sang like the bird in my backyard, the same quick note over and over . . . To me, this was like being in Heaven with Maria Mendoza, listening to the loving sounds of angels as the veladoras warmed the walls with their beautiful light.
But then, just for a second, the breathing sounds all stopped when a big noise went off. A big POP! It came from another room, like maybe someone opened some more champagne. Soon nobody even cared, except for me. The noise shook me up, and I had all these bad thoughts. I remembered about Carla and my promise. If I didn't marry her now, her parents would throw her out. But if I married her, what was the use of meeting Maria here tonight?
Maria could feel me pulling away, so then she sat up. "Chuy?" she said.
I said, "I got to find Danny." As I was getting up, she held onto my sleeve, but I said, "I got to go now. I'll see you around."
Then I stood up in the darkness, surrounded by humping shadows, and I found my way into the hall. There were two bedrooms at the back of the house, but only one leaked some light at the bottom of the door. That was the one I opened. There was no one inside. The bed was still made, and the light came from a lamp on the desk, where someone wrote a note. I went over for a look, and there I saw Danny lying down on the floor. Half his face was in the shadow of the bed, but the other half was bright from the lamp and staring at the ceiling.
"Que tonto? " I said, but he didn't answer. "What are you writing?"
I don't know why it took so long for me to understand that Danny Romero was dead. For the longest time I stood over him, looking down and thinking he was pulling a joke. Then time jumped ahead. I went from standing over him to kneeling on the floor. First I covered up the bloody side of his face, and then picked up the gun. It was Oscar's gun, and I remembered how Danny didn't want to take it from me. And I was sorry, so sorry I handed him this gun. I said out loud, "God? You let this happen?" Because it is the worst thing anyone could go through to look down, and see his best friend's blood on his hand. But this is what happened to me. On the night I met Maria again and fell in love, I saw this terrible sight.
Anyway, next thing I knew, people were standing at the door. And they were saying, "What going on? " and "Who got shot? " There was a lot of noisy talk, and some girl started to scream. She kept saying, "Oh my God oh my God!" over and over. Pretty soon, a policeman arrived. He made them all go into the other room. Then he came back to deal with me. He looked pretty young to be a policeman, like nineteen or twenty. He stood with his legs apart, and he held his arms in a Vee and pointed his revolver at my face. Then he shouted, "Drop the gun! " like this was some kind of a big military operation.
I dropped the gun, and I did all the things he told me. I kicked it over to him, and then I got up from the floor, and he made me lift up my shirt and turn around, so he could see my stomach and my back--that there were no other weapons--and then he shouted, "Raise your hands! " So I did. And I had to walk toward him backward. When I got within an arm's reach, he put his palm on my head and pushed me down to the floor. "Put your hands behind you! " he shouted. And he handcuffed my wrists.
Only then, while he was patting down my whole body, did he stop shouting. Then he tried to tell me a lot of bullshit, that he was only doing this for my safety, that I should relax. Yeah, sure! Up close, he looked even younger, maybe even Danny's age. He was still real excited, breathing hard and talking loud, like he was in great danger.
Then the strangest thing happened. No one will believe me, but the policeman was there, and he and I know it's true. It happened this way. The policeman told me not to move. Then he went over to Danny's body to make sure he was dead. He bent down beside Danny and lifted his wrist. And the next thing--honest to God--Danny started sitting up! I swear it's true. Danny rose from the floor with a great big breath, and he flung out his arms.
It was a big shock, believe me. The policeman jerked back and started yelling, "Ahhh! " He fell right on his ass, and then he grabbed his gun and started pointing it at Danny, like a zombie or something was coming after him. For me, it was different. I was shocked, too, but I was happy. I wanted to laugh. I thought God heard my prayer, and He raised the dead. There was Danny, sitting up, and he had to be alive. His eyes were big and open. They must have snapped one last picture of this world before his lungs gave back his breath, and he dropped dead on the floor.
"Holy Shit! " said the policeman. "A dying breath," he called it. Then he said, "Scared the shit of me. Damn! I never saw one before." I think he tell me this because he was embarrassed, and he didn't want me to tell nobody. That's all he cared about, what the other cops thought. But I didn't care what they thought. I only cared that Death could play such a mean trick--that after taking a life, Death had to mock the living.
After he caught his breath, the policeman took me by the arm. He said, "It's time to go," and he led me through the house. By then, some more policemen had arrived. They must have been detectives because they didn't wear uniforms. Instead they wore jeans and nylon jackets that said Tucson Police Department across the back. They'd sent everyone to the living room and told them to sit apart. Then they started talking to each kid and writing down stuff in their little books. I didn't see Maria Mendoza, but as the policeman took me through the crowd, all the others stopped to stare. It was the first time in my life people looked at me as if I was important.
After you get arrested, it's not just a simple thing where they take you to the station and put you in jail. First they got to tell you your rights--the right to be silent and all that stuff. Then they ask you questions and write everything down.
Later on, a guy came around with a camera. He took some pictures of my face and the palm of my hand with all the blood. Then he got a Q-tip, and wet it in some alcohol, and wiped some blood off my palm. After that, he looked me over really good. He checked between my fingers, and he looked up and down my arms on both sides. This guy had cold hands and touched me like he was working on a corpse.
Finally, I wound up in an empty room with a table and some chairs. They sat me so I had to face a mirror, but it was a fake, so they could see me from the other side. Then they left me alone, but I figured maybe someone in the hall was watching me. They left me there for a long time. It was so long, I thought they forgot about me, and I'd have to sit at that table until the morning. According to the clock on the wall, it was three a.m. I watched the second hand go around. I rubbed some blood off my palm. Finally a new guy came into the room. He must have been a policeman, too, but he wore a running suit and a baseball cap, and his face was pale and sleepy like he just got up. He had a long straight nose and short red hair. He said his name was Sergeant Wolenik, but he told me to call him Bob, just plain Bob.
"How's everyone been treating you?" he said.
I told him okay so far.
"Well, they better," he said. "You don't have to talk to anyone. Did the officer tell you that?"
He was a pretty strange policeman who talked like he didn't trust cops. He even told me my rights again, in case the others left something out. Then he explained to me about juvenile court. He said if this court didn't take my case, I could be tried as an adult.
"Am I going to jail?" I said.
"You're not under arrest," he said. "They should have told you that." Then he asked if I wanted a soda or something. He said he needed one, too, so he left me to get them. While he was gone, I figured I was pretty lucky to have Bob here instead of somebody mean. He came back right away with two cans of Pepsi. Then he was sorry there were no more Cokes. I said, no big deal, I drink them both. But Bob said he started out liking Pepsi only now he liked Coke better. Then he didn't say any more. He just drank his soda slowly like now it was my turn.
So I said, "Bob, did you ever hear people say that everything happens for a reason? My mother says it all the time."
"You mean bad things?" he said. "Like what happened to your friend?" He nodded. He said, "I hear it all the time."
"So what do you think?" I said. "What's the reason?"
Bob didn't answer. He took another long drink before he put down the can. Then he said, "I had to call your mother and tell her where you are."
"My mother? " I said. "What did she say?"
"She's scared for you, son. She wants to come down and get you."
"Can she do that?"
"I sent a car," he said, "to pick her up."
I was really glad because my mother doesn't know how to drive, and it would cost a lot to pay a taxi. I told him thanks, thanks a lot.
He said, "She's pretty shaken up. She says the other kid--Danny--was your best friend."
"Oh yeah," I said. "We go way back."
"That's what everybody tells me. You and Danny were like brothers." He finished the soda. Then he said, "Was it your gun?"
"No way," I said.
"Then how did you get it?"
"I took it," I said. "You know, when Danny wasn't looking." Then I realized I just made a big mistake.
"You took it," he said. "When was that?" This time I didn't answer him. "What did you want the gun for?" he said. Then he checked his watch. "Well," he said, "it's up to you. I just thought you'd rather tell me because the other cops will want to know."
"I can tell you instead?"
"That's my point," said Bob. "But only if you want to. Or you can wait for your mother. She may want you to talk to a lawyer."
"A lawyer? " I said. What did my mother know about lawyers? She'd just be scared, I thought. "If I tell you," I said, "can I go home?"
That would depend, he said. "You have to tell the truth. Why did you take the gun."
I figured it was okay to say it, since I didn't really do it. So I said, "I was going to shoot Benny Mendoza."
"Kill him?" he said.
"Yeah, sure," I said. "But I didn't do it. I gave the gun back to Danny."
Bob took out his notebook. He went back several pages. "Wasn't Benny Mendoza at the party? You didn't mention that."
I said, "I must have forgot."
"Son," he said. "You couldn't just forget. You were going to shoot this guy."
I said, "Yeah, but I changed my mind."
"What about Danny?" Bob said. "Did he want to shoot him? The truth."
"Oh, well." I shrugged. "Maybe just a little."
"Did you want Danny to shoot him?"
"No way," I said.
Then Bob's voice got slow and heavy. He said, "Listen to me, son. Did you try to stop Danny? Did you struggle with the gun? " Before I could answer, he changed his mind. He raised his hand so I wouldn't speak. Then he stood up and left the room. He wasn't gone too long before he came back with a tape recorder. "Let's do this right," he said. "So we won't have to keep going over it."
We had to start all over. He even asked me my name and stuff like that. I wondered about the time, but Bob said, "You're doing fine, son. Shall we keep going a little longer?" He was such good guy, I didn't complain even once. Bob didn't push me or nothing. It was like to talking to a friend all night. So we talked and talked, until this other policeman came into the room. He was fat and kind of old. His hair was white, and he walked with a limp. He went over to Bob and whispered in his ear. It must have been important because Bob looked at me, the old guy whispered some more, and Bob stopped the tape recorder. Then he pinched his nose and rubbed his eyes, as the old guy limped out of the room.
Something was going on because all of a sudden, Bob wasn't Bob anymore. His face got so full of blood his freckles didn't show.
I said, "What's wrong, Bob? Can I help?"
But he just shook his head some more. Then he sighed, and it was such a long sigh, it lasted till all the blood faded out of his face. When he looked at me, he was pale again and tired and kind of old. He said, "You asked me if everything happens for a reason."
I sat up straight because this was something I needed to understand.
"You want to know the reason?" Bob said. Then he shut his eyes. When he opened them, he said, "You poor simple mutt," as he got up from the table to leave.
But I grabbed his wrist and stared up at him. "Tell me," I said.
He stared at my hand until I let go. Then he said, "You want to know the reason? You want to know why shit happens all the time."
"Is it God?" I said.
"It's people," he said. "Stupid people who keep on fucking up." Then he left me in the room and shut the door, and I never saw Bob again.
More time passed, maybe half an hour. It was very lonely then, but after awhile I didn't even care. That's how I finally felt at the end of this terrible night, that I didn't even care. The next time the door opened, it was the old policeman with a limp.
I said, "Where's Bob?"
"Bob doesn't want to talk to you anymore. Come on. Let's go," he said. He pulled on my arm till I stood up, and then he rushed me to the door. He led me straight to a waiting room at the front of the station. My mother was there. She had been there for hours. She was so glad when she saw me, her bottom lip started shaking. So were her fingers, so I held them. They were very cold.
"Is it true, Jesus?" she said. My mother always called me Chuy, but on this night I was Jesus. "Where would you get a gun?" she asked.
I said I was sorry, Ama. I said, "It's my fault."
Then my mother's legs began to fail. I had to hold her up while the old policeman came over to help. He kept shaking his head at me, but when he looked at my mother, he wasn't mad anymore. He said, "It's all right, Mrs. Santos. Your boy didn't do it."
My poor mother, she still didn't understand.
He said, "You can leave now. Your son's just been telling us a story."
"Chuy? Why would he do that?"
"God knows. It makes them feel better. You feel better now, son?"
But I told him, "No, sir." Confession was supposed to help my soul, but now I felt worse than ever.
It was really sad on the day of Danny's funeral. Even the sky looked in mourning for him, dark and sad. There were storm clouds over the mountains, still a lot of people came--I guess the whole senior class, and Danny's teachers, the others players on the baseball team, and Danny's coach. My mother came, too, and at least a hundred of Danny's relatives drove here from Yuma and Phoenix and all over the state. Some of them even came from Mexico.
Danny's mother asked me to stand beside her, next to Oscar. He wore his Marine dress uniform, and he stood at attention the whole time until the priest finished reading. Then Lenora stepped out of the crowd. She walked up to Danny's mother, and they kissed. She came over to me and kissed my cheek. Next she went up to Oscar. He bent down to whisper something special in her ear . . . Then something happened. Lenora started backing up, away from Oscar. After a few steps she stopped, all the time staring at Oscar's eyes like she was begging him for something, but his face was stone, so she swung around suddenly and started pushing through the crowd. It was a big crowd. Pretty soon I couldn't see her no more, and we all walked back to our cars.
Later on at Danny's house, Oscar explained. He told me all about why Danny shot himself. It was because of Lenora. She had a boyfriend back in Texas. A few months ago, this boyfriend moved here to be close to her. He took a job in town, and Lenora started seeing him again, but she was seeing Danny too. She told Danny that she loved them both. He didn't know how to handle it.
"I told Danny," Oscar said, "deal with the guy or get rid of the bitch. I put the gun in his hand. It's all my fault," he said.
But I took the gun away, and then I gave it back to Danny. So who was really to blame? And if Danny had to die, what was the reason?
A couple of weeks passed, and my mother kept asking if I was all right. I didn't know what to tell her, and she didn't know what to do. Then one day she decided to call her sister in California. She talked about me like I wasn't even there, and after she hung up, she told me she'd decided. It was time for me to meet my Tía Teresa.
Up to then, I only knew about my tía from the stories I heard, and a picture of her in an album. She is a short lady with a beautiful face, like a fat angel. She's psychic, too. Everybody in the family says so, but if people don't know her, they think she's a witch.
To give an example, she was the first to know my grandpa died. She called my mother from California, and said to make the funeral arrangements. My mother got excited. She said, "What are you talking about? Ápa, esta bien. He's in the other room." Then she went into the den to take a look, but grandpa was already dead in his big chair with a newspaper lying on his lap. Another time she called my mother and said to see the doctor right away. My mother said, "How come you want me to see a doctor?" But she figured she better go and be safe, so she went to the doctor and then she found out she had walking pneumonia.
Well, anyway, a week later, we took a bus to see my tía in California. My cousin met us at the Greyhound Station and drove us to my tía's house. When she heard the car, she came up the front door. I was carrying a couple of valises, but she stopped me, so I put them down. She stared up at my face for a long time. Then she held my face inside her hands, and she stared up into my eyes. When my mother was near, she said, "Cecilia, you are blessed. You are doubly blessed." She didn't ever want to let go of my face. Later on my mother explained that she's a little crazy but she's really good.
This was my first trip away from Tucson. I always heard that California isn't nice anymore because of all the gangs. And my tía lives on a street with a gang, but she told us not to worry, the gang protects the barrio. We could walk anywhere we want and be safe, except don't go north, she said. Every place else was okay.
Anyway, I didn't care about going out for a walk. There was a room just for me, and that's where I stayed most of the time. All day, my mother and my tía talked about me in the kitchen, so I closed the door and hung out in bed. I had such terrible thoughts. All my life, God had been there for me. But now, I didn't think He was anywhere. It seemed to me if I saw Danny try to shoot himself, I would stop him. And if I would do that, why wouldn't God--who's supposed to be so perfect, and see everything that happens, and love every single person?
I never had such thoughts or such a heavy, achy feeling in my chest. It must have been from loneliness.
Then one night I couldn't sleep at all. One, two, three in the morning. Finally I got out of bed. I was dressed already and tired of lying on my back, so I got up and went outside on the front porch. There was nothing going on. All the houses were dark and quiet. I started walking up the street. I didn't even know which way I was going. I must have walked for maybe like an hour, and then I wondered if I was heading north, where my tía told me not to go. Which way was north? I didn't know that either.
I came to a place where the streetlights didn't work and people lived in darkness. The houses looked older here, and a lot of them had mean dogs. They came barking up to the fence and showed me their teeth, Dobermans and a couple of pit bulls, acting like they wanted to tear me apart. They made a bunch of noise, but nobody turned on a house light, so I guess they were used to it.
I walked so far that finally there was no more houses, just an empty street which led to a highway. That's where I stopped, like a hitchhiker, next to the highway entrance. My watch said four o'clock in the morning, and it didn't seem possible that I could ever find my way back. So I sat down on the curb, and I decided just to wait there until I could figure something out. This was very quiet night, and I was surprised I could be alone for so long in Southern California and not even see a car or another person. It was pretty miserable to wind up a place like that. The sky was black without a single star. I figured, Oh well, I'll try one more time. I'll talk to God. So I said out loud, "God, if You are really up there, come down here and show Yourself. You wouldn't leave me here if You were still my friend."
I waited a long time, a whole hour, and He didn't show up. Finally, I got so tired that I crossed my arms over my knees and lowered my head. I think maybe I feel asleep. A car woke me up. At first it sounded far away, but it come closer really fast. It came roaring toward me like maybe the muffler had a big hole. Soon it sounded so loud, I had to cover my ears. This car was dirty white, an old Chevy with one headlight. It was one of those antique cars from the Fifties at least, with a couple of tail fins. It even moved like a fish, like a whale bouncing over the waves. I guess it didn't have no shocks. It seemed to be heading for the highway, but when it got close to the entrance, the car slowed down. It drove straight up to me and stopped. The front end was shaking, and the tailpipe was coughing black smoke.
Then, whoever was driving cut the engine, and the one headlight went out and everything got more silent than before. At first, it just stood there, parked like a ghost car without a rider. But finally the driver's door started creaking open. It was so banged up, the driver had to push it with his shoulder. Then this guy climbed out--kind of a short guy, but a muscle man. Through his tee-shirt, I could see the lumps of muscle in his stomach and chest. He wore a dark bandana and an earring in one ear. And his eyes were half-closed and looked at me funny. Like maybe he was on drugs or something. Walking up to me, he stumbled on a broken heel.
I thought, Oh great. Now I'm going to get rolled.
When he got to the curb, he stopped and looked at me over. "What's wrong with you?" he said.
"Nothing," I said. I just wanted him to leave.
"You sad or something?" he said. Then, before I could answer, he said, "I came to tell you. God is real, man. It's true. "
I didn't believe what I was hearing.
Then he said it again. And he told me I was very special and God had a plan just for me.
"Did God send you here?" I said.
"That's right," he said. "He sent me to tell you."
I figured there was no way this guy could know about my prayer, so I asked, "Are you an angel?"
That set him off. He laughed so hard, his voice broke, and then he started coughing, like a deep, long smoker's cough, for maybe a whole minute. Finally it died down. And then he got real serious, and he said, "How did you know I'm an angel?"
So I told him. I said, "I asked God to come here and talk to me."
"No shit?" he said. "That was you? " And he wiped his nose on the back of his hand. "Well, He couldn't make it," the angel said, "so He sent me. He told me to tell you, He loves you, man. You got to believe me. "
"Okay," I said because I thought it must be true.
Then he bent down to get closer, and he stared at me with his sleepy eyes and his brown leather face. "You made me very happy," he said. "This job's a bitch. I go around this city, most people won't even talk to me. You're the first." Then he shrugged like to say, What can you do? And he walked back to the Chevy and climbed inside. He put the car in reverse and pulled away backwards. He drove so fast, he left a chunk of tire on the street. Then he swung the car around in a circle, screeching like a chicken, and shot down the street so fast that POOF! He just disappeared.
When the sun came out, I raised my head off my arms, so I must have been sleeping. But then I saw the tread from the angel's car, still printed on the street, and that proved he wasn't just a dream.
By now there were cars up and down the highway, flying by. It was time to go, so I started down the long empty street until I came to a Texaco station. It was pretty big and took up a whole corner. There must have been at least a dozen pumps, and a big garage, and some toilets in a store that sold everything. But there were locks on the doors of the display case, and a big wire cage over the outside windows, which didn't say too much for the neighborhood.
I wanted to ask the counter guy for directions, but I didn't know my tía's address. I didn't even know her last name. So all I could do was pee in the Men's Room and take a drink of water. By then, the day got very beautiful. Through the cage wire on the window, I could see a blue ocean of sky, and clouds like beaches of pink and white sand.
After I left the station, I seemed to know the way, and soon I came to a neighborhood that reminded me of someplace. It had palm trees and fenced-in yards and stucco houses. Across the street I saw a big palo verde, my favorite tree because it reminds me of one in the Bible, the Tree of Life. It doesn't have leaves, and it looks kind of dead except that it is the color of fresh young grass.
While I was looking at this tree, I heard dogs and chickens. Then a cock crowed, and I felt like I was back in Tucson. Even the names on the mailboxes were the names of my neighbors, Chavez, Hernandez, and Romero. But when I looked across the street again, there was my tía's house, and she was sitting on her front porch, waiting for me. So I crossed the street and climbed the porch stairs.
She asked me to sit with her awhile. My mother was still sleeping. "You had a good walk, mi jito. You're better now," she said because she knew something happened. She said when I first came to her house, all she saw around me was darkness, but today when I stood across the street, she saw me in a golden light. "Tell me," she said. "Tell me everything that happened."
She meant from the very beginning, so we sat on the porch, and I told her about Oscar and Carla and Benny Mendoza. I explained about Danny and Leonora, how he shot himself in the head and how police took me away like it was my fault. And then told her what happened last night. How I asked Him to come down and see me, but He sent an angel instead.
This made my tía excited. She wanted to know the smallest things about the angel, even the color of his eyes, which I didn't see because it was too dark. She didn't even think it was strange that he drove a Chevy. She just listened to it all, and then she said I must feel happy to be so special to God.
"What's wrong?" she said.
"He didn't come," I said. "I still don't know why He let Danny die. Do you know, tía? "
"No," she said. "I don't know that either.
I turned away from her toward the street.
"But if you want the answer," she said. "I can tell you what you have to do."
She led me into the house. Then she found a notebook, like the ones I use in school, and a pen, which she must have got from her dentist's office. Along the side of the pen, it said, ENJOY A PLEASANT DENTAL EXPERIENCE. She gave me the pad and the pen, and she told me to go to my room. "I want you to write everything," she said. "From the first thing you can remember."
And that's what I've been doing here all day, writing down the story of my life, up until six o'clock this morning. My tía said that when I finish, I should read it over, so that's what I'm going to do next. Then she said to put the notebook away. And in five more years, I have to read it again. And then she told me to add all the new stuff that happened. She says to keep doing this every five years, and in time, it will start to make a little sense. By the end of my life, she said I will find the answer that I want in the story that I am writing.
I will read it back, she promised, and then I will understand why everything had to happen in such a way. Why I had to meet Carla first, and promise to marry her, before Maria and I fell in love. And why God, though He loves us all, watched Danny Romero put a bullet in his head.