Here’s a short story. It’s alright. I’m sure it has typos and plot holes. I wrote it late at night at a coffee shop in Orange County a couple of years ago. I figured I’d share it before deleting the page that was hosting it.
The smell of metal glazed with unwashed hands marinated in sweat was something he never quite got used to. He never liked the smell of metal to begin with. When he was a kid, Papa made him fetch the pruners and rakes at the job sites. He hated it. All the other kids looked forward to summer break but Emilio dreaded that final spring bell. Summer break was like doing hard time. Papa had built a respectable landscaping business from $146 of seed money his cousins had given him when he first crossed the border. He doubled that $146 by hanging out at the local hardware store and working as a day laborer the way a lot of his fellow border hoppers did. But Papa was smart. All the other guys stood by the big chain home improvement warehouse but he made it a point to inch his way closer and closer to the mom & pop shop. Milkey’s Hardware had a tough time staying in business and customers were far in between but Papa had broken away from the pack and this was unacceptable to the big chain store crew. The incessant barrage of laughter streaming from the left side of the big store was inspired by equal parts social bullying and envy of Papa’s cojones. But Gilbert Milkey took a liking to Papa. Before long, Papa didn’t have to budget for a daily meal; Old Gil made sure his wife rustled up an extra batch of potatoes for Papa every day. Loyal locals got to know Papa. They made it a point to use him for odd jobs rather than the guys that hang by the big store who were consistantly parading through the revolving door of the deportation/immigration system.
Then Papa started recruiting guys from the big store. The ones that didn’t keep getting caught by la migra. He prefered the younger Guatemalans mainly because they were ultra focused. They weren’t in America because they had any illusions about “The American Dream.” No; they were here to save money for a wedding and get the hell back home to their young brides. And when la Migra did snatch them up, instead of saying they were from Guatemala, they could easily say they were from Mexico. The gringos can’t tell the difference anyway. And when the United States Citizenship and Immigration Department dropped them off in Tijuana, they simply made their way back over the border because- fuck- Guatemala was so far away it wouldn’t even be worth it.
Then Papa got a better apartment and started housing his workers while learning business law at the library. He turned that seed money into a $40,000 business. The next year that doubled. The next year it doubled again. He paid for his youngest son’s university education in cash. Today, under the setting sunlight, interrupted by those unmistakable Southern California palm trees and over carne asada and Coronas, with his family and friends gathered around him, he half-jokingly refers to that initial $146 as his “initial public offering” and his cousins as his “angel investors.”
Then that’s where the fairytale ends. Jose may have gone off to college but Eduardo was a total fuckup. It started innocently enough. He stole candy from the store because Papa forbid him to eat candy before dinner. The it was a little easier to snatch other snacks. Then it got easier to pocket change from the donation jar. Then it was pretty simple to take some money from the register of the fast food joint he started working at to pay for his newly forming drug habit. And so on. And so on. By the time he was 17 he was stealing cars. And then it got worse.
Emilio is the classic middle child. He was generally a good kid like Jose but he looked up to Eduardo so much. Eduardo won fights he never started. All the girls at school jocked him. Eduardo was always proud to show off his little brother Emilio since Jose just kept his head in the books and avoided socializing with his classmates. Eduardo and Emilio loved baseball, Sega and Schwarzenegger movies. The perfect Saturday would be waking up and getting as far as they could on their weekly game rental, then playing some ball at the field with the rest of the crew and closing the night with Commando or Predator. When they were younger that seemed to be enough. As they started to get older they’d sneak a beer or two. And then maybe a couple of hits of whatever. And eventually they stopped hanging at home at the end of the night altogether. Total Recall was the last Schwarzenegger flick they watched sober.
That thought burns Emilio for some reason. It’s that last flick that pops into his head when he cringes at the smell of metal glazed with unwashed hands marinated in sweat. The smell of the bars at San Quentin Federal Penitentiary. It’s been six years and that smell still bothers him. He sits on his bunk in the tiny cell he shares with his cellmate. His face is moist with sweat. It seems like everyone is always sweaty here. It’s been two days since his last shave. His cropped black hair is uncombed. There is less incentive to comb your hair here. After all, who you trying to impress? Most of the Mexicans in here, the Esses, spend a lot of time grooming and looking good but that’s more because the groomed look is basically their gang uniform. They’re actually kind of proud to be in here. Emilio hates every second of it. The gun metal grey walls make him physically sick. His back hurts because the bunk is uncomfortable but who gives a shit. All he can do right now is sit here and stare at that photo of Cecilia next to the dirty mirror above the filthy sink. It’s the one she took at the mall for him with the pink floral background and the over processed lighting. Long curly black hair, eyebrows plucked thin and lips puckered… She glows like an angel. What he wouldn’t give to have his arms wrapped around her waist right now. To touch her smooth skin. To grab her breasts. To be in her bed, in her pink bedroom, where it smells like lotion, hair products and knockoff Amore Amore perfume. Where it doesn’t smell like metal and sweat.
It’s evening when Emilio walks into the common area. Chairs are setup. It’s movie night. They don’t tell you what movie it is ahead of time and it’s always some lame family flick. Can’t have the inmates getting all riled up. The common area looks a whole hell of a lot like his cell- just a whole hell of a lot bigger. Emilio sits next to his cellmate and immediately regrets collapsing into that metal contraption they call a chair. That one guard (fuck what’s his name- he has a weird sounding, middle easterny last name but a typical white guy first name like Jake or Mike) strolls up to the TV set on the rolling stand and pops in the VHS. As the opening credit roll, from what Emilio can see, beyond the random paper missiles flying from one end of the room to the other, and from what he can hear past the neverending chatter of the audience… It’s Twins. Papa really loved this one. He didn’t like violence. Twins was the one the whole family could watch together.
They watched Terminator the night they got caught up. They should have just stayed home and and smoked some more weed but Eduardo wanted to hit up that party down the block. He heard Marisol was gonna be there and she had an ass just wouldn’t quit. Emilio had proposed to Cecilia two weeks before and didn’t want to deal with all that temptation but Eduardo always had a way of convincing him to roll. Shit went south so fast they didn’t know what hit them. One minute all the homies were there having a great time, chillin on couches in the living room and bumpin some Kid Frost. Next there were gunshots. Before they knew it, Eduardo and Emilio were dodging Marisol’s man, jumping from backyard to backyard. They outran a pitbull in one and physically ran into Marisol’s man in the dirt alleyway past the liquor store. As they stood over Marisol’s man’s lifeless body, Emilio realized his feet were covered in blood. He didn’t know Eduardo had stabbed Emilio’s man. He didn’t even know Eduardo had a knife. It happened so fast he didn’t even see it happen. One second he was catching up to his adrenaline rush from dodging that pitbull and the next, he was looking down at the first dead body he’d ever seen in his life. There’s no fate but the one we make.
Sirens. Barking dogs. Handcuffs. A welt the size of a baseball on his head from when the cop smacked him onto the hood of the Crown Vic. Blurry. The smell of dirty leather from the back seat. The smell of metal bars. The bang of the gavel solidifying where he’d spend the rest of his life. The pounding anxiety of that realization. Eduardo didn’t experience any of these. Eduardo got away somehow, made his way south and didn’t come back. Emilio experienced all of these things. Not ratting out his older brother pissed the prosecutor off even more than the not-guilty plea. Papa wouldn’t pay for a lawyer. Emilio got himself into this mess and he’d have to get himself out. That public defender was worthless.
On Tuesday a guy standing close to Emilio in the yard gets shanked with a crudely constructed stabbing weapon. Everyone back to their cells. Lockdown. Gotta get out of this place.
It’s Wednesday morning as Emilio makes his way to the private meeting rooms. That guard with the Middle Easterny sounding last name leads the way. Come with me if you want to live. Emilio had fallen asleep last night while reading the novelization of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. That was the last line he read before dozing off. He wondered if he could duplicate Sarah Connor’s daring escape in real life.
The new attorney sitting across from Emilio is a sharply dressed black man who somehow speaks better Spanish than Emilio. He sports a cream colored suit with a light blue tie and well groomed facial hair. He is explaining some sort of pardoning procedure which may or may not be Emilio’s last shot at parole. He enunciates his words with his hands. His voice is a silky smooth and bassy like Barry White. Love Serenade played in the background when Emilio and Cecilia made love for the first time. He’d heard that putting on some Barry White was guaranteed to get him laid. That and all the Tequila. He is lost in the memory of her smooth skin. Her breasts. Her bed where it smells like lotion, hair products and knockoff Amore Amore perfume. Where it doesn’t smell like metal and sweat. This is the third time Emilio had met with this attorney and, without fail, he misses the majority of what the lawyer has to say because the lawyer’s Barry White voice takes him back into to Cecilia’s arms. Emilio almost looks forward to these meetings more as a virtual reality meditation than anything else. “So we’ll see next week if you get it,” Barry says. By this time next month, Emilio might be back in Cecilia’s bed after all. She’s visited him several times and has sworn she’s stayed loyal to him.
It’s Friday night and Emilio can’t get any sleep because his cellmate is snoring up a storm. At nights, it’s a symphony of snores in here. The sounds of a thousand inmate snores swirl into his brain until they sound like a ferocious battle between packs of animals that may or may not exist on a different continent. Emilio lays on his side and presses the pillow into his outward facing ear in a desperate attempt to muffle out that repugnant wave of noise. Gotta get out of this place.
Emilio, Eduardo, Jose and Papa are watching Kindergarten Cop on the sofa. Papa likes Schwarzenegger because he’s a self made man, just like Papa. Throughout the movie, Papa keeps making random observations of Schwarzenegger coming to this country as an immigrant and building his empire through hard work. He scratches his beer belly through the part of his white shirt that he always leaves unbuttoned specifically for that purpose. He leans back on the sofa comfortably, in his black slacks that seem to never crease or wrinkle. He strokes his mustache from time to time, perhaps to create some variety from the belly scratching marathon. Schwarzenegger is a fellow Republican. Republicans know hard work and don’t tax the small businessmen like those pussy-ass Democrats do.
Emilio snaps out of his daydream. He’s sitting on a bench in a grey, lifeless hallway, awaiting his hearing. The guard with the Middle Easterny last name gestures, demanding Emilio get on his feet and follow him.
Cecelia pulls Emilio into her room and kisses him passionately. She looks deeply into his eyes as she pulls off the straps of her pink tank top. He feels a physical drive to touch her anywhere and everywhere he can reach and no matter how much of her body he touches it doesn’t satisfy. He is unbuttoning his jeans and she is pulling him onto the bed as they whisper sweet nothings about getting away and starting a new life somewhere. He can get a job in a factory, doing manual labor while she maintains their little home. They’ll have kids. Let’s start right now.
Emilio walks through the hallway, following the guard. The echos of each footstep bounce off the empty walls. Human figures rush past in different directions. Everything looks like one of those artsy photos where everything is out of focus. The light coming through the periodic windows floating past seem overwhelmingly bright. Rays of sunshine stab the concrete. They melt into the ground.
Everyone is in Emilio’s backyard. Eduardo is minding the carne asada. The smell of a summer barbeque fills Emilio’s nostrils. It’s the perfect kind of quiet when you can hear the birds chirping and the summer breeze dancing with the leaves in the trees. If you listen hard enough, you might be able to hear the ocean in the distance. The warmth of the setting sun massages his upper back. His newborn son is sitting on Jose’s lap, laughing.
The doors to another lifeless grey room open and Emilio walks in, standing before a long table. This one has no windows. It’s ugly. Just as ugly as Emilio’s cell. Behind the table sit several human figures wearing professional clothing. There are papers, folders and pens in front of them. One starts to speak. His voice echoes through the ugly room. “I call this parole hearing to order at 3:34 P.M., on this day, Monday, January third, 2011.”
Papa puts his right hand on Emilio’s shoulder. That beautiful, warm summer sun makes Emilio’s little backyard look like a scene from Last Action Hero when Arnold is still in the movies, searching for bad guys in Malibu, before he gets sucked out into real life and ends up in a dark and rainy New York City. Papa looks into Emilio’s eyes, smiles as warmly as the setting sun and says he’s proud of him.
Emilio is zoned off, looking past the wall, when his eyes refocus and link with the speaking human in the professional clothing who sits behind the long desk.
“… So it is with regret that, at this time, Governor Schwarzenegger is denying your request for pardon. You will now return to commence your life sentence without the possibility of parole at San Quentin Federal Penitentiary and-”
Everything goes silent. Just a hint of a beeping white noise like when you get punched in the side of the head. The human in the professional clothing continues to speak but Emilio hears nothing. The air gets sucked out of his lungs. He feels week. Everything starts to look blurry now. His knees get weak. He might faint.
He screams at the top of his lungs in rage as he rushes the table, grabs a pen and stabs the human in the professional clothing deep into his neck. The professional human’s blood curdling cry gurgles into a gagging sound as the pen penetrates his throat. Blood sprays out of his body and covers the other humans who wail in terror as they fumble to their feet, trying to escape. Chaos.
Emilio stands there quietly and without emotion until the human with the professional clothing finishes talking. The guard puts his hand on Emilio’s shoulder. It’s time to go back. His touch is not aggressive. His fingers gently squeeze Emilio’s shoulder. They’re comforting. They’re sympathetic. Emilio turns around and walks out of the door, down the hall, down another hall and then down another one. They all look the fucking same. He drags his feet. It’s difficult to find the strength to lift his leg entirely in order to walk properly.
He is back in his cell. His cellmate says something. Emilio stares at the wall. His cellmate says something else. Emilio sees his cellmate dismiss him with his hands from his peripheral vision. Emilio lays down on his bunk and stares at the undercarriage of the top bunk. He thinks about another lifetime of avoiding fights in the cafeteria and masturbating silently at nights to thoughts of Cecilia. Another lifetime of the smell of metal glazed with unwashed hands marinated in sweat. He feels numb for a while. Then he starts to feel the air coming into his nostrils. He feels the pain in his back and the sweat on his brow. He thinks about tomorrow. He thinks about next week. He thinks about meeting with his lawyer again and this time maybe really listening to what he has to say. He has a strange feeling that forces him to regain control over his muscles. The feeling pushes him to sit up in his bunk. It leads him to the filthy sink where he splashes some water on his face. It pushes him to plan out the remainder of the day. He resolves to avoid that fight he knows is gonna go down in the yard tomorrow at noon; to stay out of trouble.
The feeling is called hope.
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