"?Chingada!" Ernesto yelled as his thin body fell down hard on the blacktop after missing the lay-up. His white skin almost glowed in the harsh afternoon sunlight and his light brown hair glistened like a halo. Ernesto's face was almost pretty except for the numerous deep scars on his right cheek and near his chin.
"You big pussy, Ernie!" laughed Carlos as he bent over and rested his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. Carlos was the tallest and most corpulent fifth grader at St. Martin?s Elementary School. Despite his girth, when he was on the basketball court, he was as graceful as his idol, Jerry West. Because he possessed such great skill, Carlos felt that he had the right to tease anyone who mangled the sport he loved so well. "That was an easy one you missed, Ernie!" said Carlos as he stood up wiping the perspiration from his brow with his forearm. Little dark spots of liquid formed a semi-circle at his feet.
Claudio and Steven stood back laughing. Ernesto almost never missed a shot and he fell maybe only once, at least in front of his friends. Carlos' ribbing stung. "You goddamn fat tub!" said Ernesto as he stood up brushing the dirt off his butt. "If you fell you'd make a crater the size of the moon."
It was hot for October even though the day was coming to an end. The basketball court, which was the focal point of the Central City Recreation Center, sat adjacent to the school house which was nothing more than a two-story, rectangular building with an office, two bathrooms -- boys and girls -- a faculty room, and four small classrooms on each floor for grades one through eight. Though one order of nuns or another ran the school since the 1930s, by 1970, the lay teachers outnumbered them. The students were mostly Mexican, either born in Mexico or born in Los Angeles, but there were a few Asian, Black and white kids. There was usually an odd Central American or two in the mix but they blended in without much trouble even though they brought very strange lunches to school. Ernesto, Claudio and Carlos were Mexican and Steven was Black. But Claudio and Steven formed a close bond because Claudio, unlike most of the Mexican children at the school, was the most Americanized because his grandparents had come from Mexico.
"Hey, Helmet," said Claudio to Steven. Helmet was Steven's nickname because his Afro was large and perfect and looked like a helmet. "Dig on this." Claudio liked to talk hip the way Steven did. Claudio looked down at the gravel and dirt that surrounded the blacktop. He picked up a stick and poked it into a pile of something. He lifted the strange object up with the end of the stick. "What the fuck is this?"
Still wiping his butt, Ernesto started to laugh. "You got that right!"
Claudio looked puzzled. "I got what right?"
"It's a fuck, that's what it is."
Claudio still could not comprehend. Steven realized this. He pulled out his plastic red, green and black hair pick and started to re-shape his already perfect Afro. Steven came to his friend's aid: "It's a used rubber."
Upon this announcement, Claudio jumped and swung the stick into the air trying to get it away from his vicinity as fast as he could. Unfortunately, in his haste, he threw the stick up into the basketball hoop and the used condom attached itself with mocking ease to the rim of the hoop and hung there looking like a deformed icicle.
"Mother fucker!" laughed Steven. "You just fucked up something bad!"
Ernesto stopped laughing. "How're we goin' to play with that thing there? I'm not touching the ball if it touches that!"
The boys looked around in vain for a way to get up to the hoop. Ernesto finally said, "Claudio, you're the one who fucked up. . . ."
"But. . . ." began Claudio.
"No buts," said Ernesto. "You have to get it somehow, pendejo. Now!"
"Okay, okay," said Claudio. He looked over to Steven for support.
"Don't look at me," said Steven as he took several steps back. "You got yourself in this shit."
Carlos suddenly felt charitable. "Okay, Claudio," he began. "I'll boost you up and you can knock it with a stick."
The plan sounded good to Claudio. He went to look for another stick around the bushes by the fence. Claudio suddenly sensed that someone was staring at him and he looked up. It was Brother Howard who lived at the residence attached to the mostly white all-boys Jesuit high school. The high school shared the block, and not much more, with St. Martin?s. The kids at the high school came from places like Hancock Park and Pacific Palisades and Pasadena. It was one of the best college preparatory schools in Los Angeles -- even though it sat in a "bad" part of town through the accident of changing demographics -- and attendance there virtually guaranteed acceptance at a top college. Tuition was steep and very few of the Mexican children from the neighborhood ever tried to get in.
Brother Howard shot a harsh look at Claudio and then over to the other three boys. Claudio blushed a dark red and tried not to act embarrassed.
"What's all t-t-this hullabaloo?" asked the Brother. He always used old fashion phrases like that. He taught the new altar boys how to do the Mass and to keep them in practice after that, a duty he volunteered for. Of the four boys on the blacktop, only Claudio agreed to be an altar boy.
Claudio tried not to make eye contact. "Nothing, Brother," he said. "We were just playing."
Claudio knew that Brother Howard was in the middle of taking his pre-dinner "constitutional" as the Brother put it. He looked old and talked old but he was no more than forty. Brother Howard had a face that was a cross between Richard Nixon and Bob Hope with a long ski-slope nose that barely held his glasses in place. He kept his hair in a severe crewcut and his cheeks burned red at all times. Brother Howard stuttered.
"C-Claudio, come here," Brother Howard said gesturing with his left hand while keeping his right resting behind his back. As Claudio approached, the Brother took a white handkerchief out of his black slacks, removed his glasses with his other hand, and slowly wiped the perspiration from his face. Without glasses, his eyes looked little and red like a rabbit's. He finished drying his face and put his glasses back on and shoved the moist handkerchief into his pocket. Claudio could smell the Brother?s Old Spice mixed with sour perspiration. "Now, don't get into any trouble. You're a g-g-good boy."
Claudio noticed a crow fly from one of the large oaks that lined the back fence of the playground and land in the middle of the field. ?Yes, Brother,? he finally answered. The crow picked at something in the newly cut grass. ?Sorry about the noise.?
This seemed to placate the Brother so he started walking back to the high school where he lived.
"Remember we have practice at the chapel next Thursday," he said as he walked away. "And say hello t-t-to your parents. Tell them I'll be able to m-m-make it to dinner Saturday night." The Brother made a crunching sound on the gravel as he headed towards the exit of the park.
Claudio waited for Brother Howard to get a safe distance away before continuing his search. He eventually found a good long stick and walked back to the other boys. Claudio carefully removed the few leaves that sprung from the sides of the stick like unruly cowlicks.
"Claudio," said Ernesto. "Brother Howard?s got a hard-on for you!"
"?Chinga tu madre!" said Claudio who usually didn't cuss in Spanish but he was very angry and embarrassed.
"Yeah. I hear the Brother likes to touch the altar boys' ears and shit like that," said Carlos.
"Fuck you!" said Claudio as he flung the stick at Carlos. "You just can't learn the Mass because you can barely read English!"
Carlos laughed. "Does he have to touch your ear so the Mass gets into your head?"
"I'm gone!" and Claudio picked up his books and walked off the basketball court heading towards the exit gate on Fifteenth Street. "It's dinner time, anyway."
This last comment perked up Carlos. "?Chingada! My mom is going to be pissed! She hates it when I'm late for dinner!" With that, Steven and Ernesto decided to leave, too. So, the other three boys gathered up their belongings and walked to the gate. Steven and Ernesto tossed the basketball back and forth with one hand while clinging to their books with the other. Carlos caught up with Claudio trying to make amends.
"I didn't mean that shit," offered Carlos. "You're cool."
Claudio looked at Carlos. "Yeah, well your mama said the same to me last night," and he laughed as Carlos tried unsuccessfully to punch his arm.
Claudio was eventually alone as the other three boys slowly splintered off, one by one, towards their respective homes. Claudio's school uniform was a mess. Grass stains streaked up and down his salt-and-pepper corduroy trousers and his white short sleeve shirt was covered with even more elaborate and colorful stains. His black Converse revealed holes in the fabric near the once-white rubber toes. Claudio's feet hurt because last week he had to put cardboard in his shoes when both his soles cracked on the same day. Water seeped into them whenever he hit a puddle which was quite often because the school and playground yards held the winter rain like large filthy sponges.
He thought about what Carlos and Ernesto had said about Brother Howard. The Brother never touched my ears, he thought. Why would anyone touch someone's ears? Claudio walked trying to fathom what it all meant. The sun hung low in the horizon and the smog helped make the sunset beautiful with bright reds and oranges streaking through the few dark clouds in the sky.
Claudio felt very hungry and his stomach made unpleasant sounds. He passed the homes of some of his classmates. This part of town, six or seven miles west of downtown off of Pico Boulevard, was once middle or even upper middle class. The houses stood proud and large -- mostly woodframed two-story structures with enormous porches and never ending front and back lawns -- but now they sagged with age and disrepair. Claudio saw the faded yellow house of Debbie Salazar. Everyone teased Debbie because she smelled stale and always looked dirty. Claudio thought that she was pretty but very sad. People said that her parents met in a halfway house and that they were both born with intelligence that never would go beyond a fifth grade level. Poor Debbie, Claudio thought. Imagine being in fifth grade with parents stuck with fifth grade minds.
Claudio's thoughts went back to the subject of Brother Howard as he walked slowly towards home. He liked the Brother because he bought him hamburgers sometimes after practicing the Mass in the cold chapel of the high school. Claudio always showed up early and waited alone looking at the old statues of the Saints and Jesus and Mary. The chapel smelled like incense and burning candles.
After a few minutes, he would hear the squeaking black shoes of Brother Howard enter the chapel and the lesson would begin. The first time Claudio was allowed to do a Mass, the Brother came along to observe. It was a wedding in Glendale so the Brother, who didn't drive, hired a taxi and picked Claudio up at his house. It was so exciting. The Mass went very well and Claudio got to eat at the reception. The groom tipped him five dollars. Afterwards, well past nine at night, the taxi drove up and the Brother and Claudio got in the back seat. Brother Howard said, "You must be tired. P-p-put your head down and rest." Claudio said that he wasn't tired but the Brother forced Claudio's head down into his lap. It was a strange and quiet drive home but Claudio couldn't remember much of it because it was so long ago. But even today, the Brother's strong and sweet after-shave made him shiver with strange flashes of uncertain memories.
Claudio was not more than a block from home. He saw Scott Fukuto's house. Scott was one of three Japanese students at St. Martin?s. Because Claudio and Scott did very well in English and mathematics, they ended up in the same advanced group and became fast friends. He would have been playing basketball that evening but he was home with the flu.
A strange rhyme wandered into Claudio's mind:
"Lottie Collins lost her drawers;
Won't you kindly lend her yours?"
It was from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Claudio's father was a voracious reader even before he, and Claudio's mom, went back to community college five years ago. Now, instead of working the nightshift on the GM assembly line in Watts, Claudio's father taught as a Head Start teacher off of Western Avenue a few miles from home. Claudio's mom planned to open her own pre-school at the Central City Recreation Center sometime soon. Claudio's father had given Claudio a yellowed and worn paperback copy of the Joyce novel.
"Mi hijo," he?d said to Claudio last year. "This is one of the greatest books ever written in English. You can have it."
But Claudio didn?t read it right away. Now, a year later, Claudio thought that he should try to read it. Some of it was wonderful and fell into his mind as effortlessly as rain. Other parts he could not decipher like that little rhyme that clung to his memory and kept coming back at odd times.
Claudio came up to the rusted chain link fence that surrounded his home. He momentarily rested his right hand on the bent latch and surveyed his front yard that displayed more hard dirt than grass. Nondescript plants had taken over the big area in front of the porch where there used to be flowers. Three spindly rose bushes lined each side of the walkway. His two brothers and two sisters would already be there, as usual. Claudio opened the gate and let it slam with a metallic crash. As he ambled up the concrete steps of the vast porch, the smell of sopa and pollo wafted through the screen door to greet him.
"Mi hijito, is that you?" his mother called from within.
The sun had set and it began to grow cold. Claudio heard the crow that lived in the large avocado tree in back cawing and making a racket. His father hated that crow. An old but beautifully restored Buick drove by spewing forth a very loud and raucous Sly Stone song.
His mother yelled out again: "Mi cielo, is that you? Dinner is ready. Everyone's at the table."
"Yes, mom," Claudio said as he opened the screen door and entered his home. The crow stopped its cawing and Sly Stone's voice was already a block away. "It's me. Ya me voy."
* * *
She looked down at Claudio, eyes soft and loving. Her skin shone a waxy but beautiful white and the edges of her closed mouth curled up, just a bit, offering an almost-smile. To her right, the votive candles burned excitedly in the wrought iron stand: the little tongues of fire jumped and sizzled from a breeze that blew in from the sanctuary?s side door that was kept ajar during the day. This is where Claudio liked to wait. He felt safe there, in front of her, the Virgin Mary, as the candles? smoke filled his nostrils with sanctity, each candle representing a prayer lit in thanks, in hope, in fear. She looked down at Claudio with eyes that said, I know your heart, I know your prayers. But in a few minutes, Brother Howard would squeak, squeak, squeak into the sanctuary on his rubber soles, to give a lesson to the altar boy. So, this was Claudio?s time to be with the Virgin. He closed his eyes and swayed before her. He tried to listen for whatever she might say to him the way that little girl listened at F?tima all those years ago. If Mary could choose to speak to her, why couldn?t she choose Claudio, too? His trance broke with a loud crash from the sanctuary?s main entrance. The sound echoed through the empty chapel. He turned and saw Brother Howard on his knees trying to gather up something. When the Brother stood, Claudio could see that he had dropped the two large prayer books that he used to teach the Mass to the altar boys. After juggling the books for a moment, Brother Howard squeaked to the side of the sanctuary by the confessionals and then towards the boy.
?G-g-g-ood afternoon, son,? he said.
?Hello, Brother,? Claudio answered.
When Brother Howard came closer, Claudio could see that his hands shook as he clutched the prayer books. Large half-moons of perspiration marred the underarms of the Brother?s otherwise perfect, black shirt.
?W-w-we have to cancel t-t-today,? said the Brother as he uneasily handed one of the books to Claudio. ?You?ll have t-t-to study on your own.?
Claudio took the book. The Brother left ghostly, wet fingerprints on its cover. Claudio tried not to touch the prints.
Brother Howard put the other prayer book down on a pew. He whipped off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. When he finished, he slipped the glasses slowly and too deliberately onto his nose.
?I-I-I have a meeting with the Father Lawrence,? he said as he reached to the pew for the book.
Brother Howard coughed again. ?Claudio, my dear boy,? and he put a hand on Claudio?s small shoulder. ?You?ve been a good b-b-boy. You?re one of m-m-my favorites.? He kept his hand on Claudio?s shoulder and squeezed a little. Claudio stood as still as the Virgin Mary. The Brother let go. ?I hope that you remember me.?
A shock went through Claudio?s body. ?What do you mean, Brother??
?Well, I may be leaving for a while. I?m n-n-not too certain. It depends on how my meeting?.?
?Why?? Claudio interrupted.
The Brother looked up to the face of the Virgin. ?I have to go,? he said keeping his eyes locked on Mary?s. ?My stay here is c-c-coming to an end, I?m afraid.?
Brother Howard turned back to Claudio and offered him a wan smile. He pivoted slowly and squeaked away. When he reached the door, he rested his hand on the large, brass handle. After a moment, the Brother pulled the heavy door and left the sanctuary.
Claudio stood, frozen, staring at the sanctuary door for more than a minute after Brother Howard disappeared. The Brother?s Old Spice still lingered. Claudio looked back at the Virgin Mary. Her blue eyes seemed to glisten even more than usual. And Claudio wondered what she felt when people prayed to her. Did she hurt inside? Did she feel the pain of those her came to her for comfort? Or did she just store away the prayers far into her heart because, in the end, she could not help? He opened the prayer book and tried to remember what page he had to begin at. But he didn?t have to search. Brother Howard had carefully placed a slip of yellow paper in the book to mark the right place.
["Los Angeles, 1970" first appeared in online literary journal, Outsider Ink, and is featured in Daniel's first short fiction collection, "Assumption and Other Stories" (Bilingual Press).]
Daniel A. Olivas:
Autographed copies of Daniel's "Assumption and Other Stories" are available at Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural, 12737 Glenoaks Blvd., Sylmar, and at B. Dalton's, 6600 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Canoga Park. Say hola at www.danielolivas.com.