by L. Vocem
First published in Wraparound South
I went to one of my friend’s apartment to see if he could go out and play. His parents spoke in broken English. They did not want me to stay outside and asked me in. As I put one step inside his apartment a force field of air was broken and the smells of garlic and spice, cumin and lamb, baba ghanouj permeated the air. We went to get the other guys, and in different apartments chiles, curries, tamales, hummus, pho, plantains, kimchi, grape leaves, lamb, fish, eggs, chorizo exploded into the air and provided a signature of my friends ethnicity, their traditions, and their reasons for being here. I wondered if they had the same experience when they entered into our apartment.
I summoned my army of friends and went into a creek behind one of the strip malls to play war, chase each other or some animal we may have found. We were having a great time until I heard a loud scream. It was Ishman. I looked down his way, and it did not sound like part of the play that we had going. His ahhhh, ahhh, should have been different. No, he was in real pain. Then another one of my guys screamed obscenities that for our age group he shouldn't have known. So now I was worried.
“Did you get stung?” I screamed in his direction.
“I don’t know, it hurts,” he said.
I looked around mainly for bees, or some yellow jacket nest, but I did not see any. Then it hit me, right on the arm. It was a sharp piercing pain and I could see right away the area turning red and a little circle forming around it. This was something else.
“Everyone down!” I screamed, as I had seen in some movie before.
As I said that, I got hit again on my neck. I threw myself on the ground, popped my head up quickly to look around. I listened for a while, and I noticed laughter, giggles and movement through the bush.
“Regroup,” I screamed but kept my head down.
The guys moved around and landed around me, giving me a look as if they had no idea of what was going on.
Kim, a Taiwanese kid screamed far away and said he could not find where we were. We screamed back at him and told him to follow the creek to the big rock. I pulled my head up and looked around, then I was buzzed by something that impacted in the woods behind me. I put my head down.
“We’re being ambushed,” I screamed. “Run, run, keep low.”
In the distance I heard rebel yells and saw movement.
Kim arrived where we were.
“Hehsus, they’re shooting at us,” Kim said.
We looked over the banks of the creek and saw the outline against the light of about five or six kids pointing guns at us.
“We got you!” They screamed, laughing.
We could not distinguish their faces. We were simply frightened.
They all laughed and talked between themselves.
“We got the spicks.”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha.”
“You got your river there. Go. Go back to your country!”
We huddled together at the edge of the bank, looking up in every direction, then focusing on the silhouette of them over the bank, with what looked to us like guns.
They laughed some more, talked among themselves then they went away.
Kim started crying. A couple of the other kids started crying as well.
“Can we go home?” one of them mumbled.
“Sure,” I said, looking up, wondering where they were. For some reason, I was not frightened, but angry. Very angry. I was going to find them. I was going to hunt them, I was going to humiliate them. I was going to inflict on them the same pain that they inflicted on us.
We sneaked through the creek and came out behind a strip mall and onto Buford Highway and went to our second floor apartment with a huge dumpster right across the parking area. I was going to tell my mom, but then decided not to. She had told me many times not go play at the creek because we could catch all kinds of diseases there. I looked at my wounds and I could tell with absolute certainty that I was hit with a BB gun pellet.
When my brother, Carlos arrived from his university, I showed him the wounds and told him about what had happened. He first said that maybe we should call the police, since shooting a BB at a person must be illegal. He asked me if I recognized any of the other kids. I didn’t recall any of them and later on the week in school the word got out about the incident and there wasn’t a single person in school that took claim. Then some older kids said that they were from another school close by. They tended to be more white since most of those kids lived in houses instead of apartments. So next time we went to the creek we took rocks and sticks and were prepared to battle it out with them. Unfortunately the next time that we saw them at the creek, they had the advantage of shooting at a distance, so throwing rocks at them was completely ineffective.
My older brother told me that when we were growing up back in Caracas, at the edge of the big city, he had a similar problem while claiming ownership of a mango tree that they used to harvest and sell the fruit. So they had to defend their tree. I asked him how they did it.
“Chinas,” he said.
I remembered the word but did not remember what it meant.
“Chinas?” I asked.
“Slingshots,” he reiterated. “Jesus, I’m going to teach you how to make one South American style. If you get good at it, no BB gun is going to stop you. Los vas a volver mierda.”
At home we tried to speak only in English. My mom wanted for us to fit in so we needed to practice. My dad on the other hand, spoke English with a horrible accent. He was a epidemiologist working for the CDC and spoke with a God-like sense of authority, so people would wait at his every breath to hear what he was going to say next. Soon we started to get visitors from South America, patients of his that wanted to get their check up. Even though he could not practice medicine in the States, he could practice down there, and prescribe whatever they needed. He also had a cadre of American patients that had seen him while in South America, that he had cured of some disease or tropical malady and wanted to make sure that they continued on the right track.
My mother loved the United States of America more than anything. Even as temporary as this adventure they had embarked on was, to her it was her dream. She had quickly contacted lawyers, and began to process all our papers. She didn’t want what happened to her before to happen to us.
It was an uphill battle, since my dad was nothing but an exchange scientist who saw medicine, not as the American model, as he described as “a formula insurance-company-dictated pill-popping culture,” but medicine that found out what each person really had and addressed their needs, not what the book said they may pay. He did not understand lawyers and all that confusing stuff, so my mother handled it. He understood the language of malaria, mal de Chagas, ebola, cholera, tuberculosis, encephalitis, but was clueless regarding the law.
I went into the woods with my brother looking for a perfect v shape branch that would be most suitable for our needs.
“See there,” my brother pointed to a particular tree. “That is our tree, do you know what that is?” He asked.
I could not tell the difference between that tree or any other.
“This here is a dogwood. Very, very strong wood. In South America I prefer the guava tree, but this will do.”
With a knife, Carlos cut the branch and began to shape it. On a different day, he took me to an office supply store and looked at all kinds of rubber bands, until he found one that was sold for holding packages. It was bright pink, and about a third of an inch wide and very elastic. He tied them around the wood and secured them with rope. For a pouch he took the leather patch on a pair of blue jeans and strapped the rubber into a couple of slits and tied it with rope. We walked pass the parking area of the apartment complex to the garbage dumpster. He took a couple of cans and placed them on top. He looked around for rocks, placed them on his hand, checked the roundness and how they would fit in the pouch. Then he pulled hard on the rubber until it stretched as far as it could go and released it. I could see how his wrist pushed forward with the momentum of the hand. He hit the cans on the first try.
“Dale, you try it Jesus.”
It was not as easy as he made it look. He told me first that I was using the wrong rocks, and pointed out at the roundness and size. Also that if the rock was flat they could fly in an arch, those would cut through skin and could cause a lot of damage, and all we wanted to do, he said, was to hurt them. I asked him what if we used ball bearings.
“No, chamo. You don’t want to do that. You can kill people.” He even went on to tell me that when our dad was in medical school at the university, there were riots against the Perez-Gimenez dictatorship, students took possession of one building and defended it for three days with slingshots, using ball bearings. Those students later on were called heroes, since that made it possible for elections to take place and democracy to become the way of the future. My brother also told me that when he was a kid, among their friends, they would play war, but instead of using rocks they would use harden clumps of dirt. They would break on impact and hurt a lot, but it never broke skin.
My dad saw us making the slingshot. Before he went up to the apartment, he said to be careful. We were in the United States of America, a country of laws, not wild South America. I was about to tell my dad what had happened on the creek, but I decided not to after my brother gave me a look.
My mother originally came to the U.S. as a refugee when she was a kid, when the Juan Vicente Gomez dictatorship collapsed and her family had to flee the country fearing for their lives. Throughout the years, family members repeated the story of how the family was ushered into a bus and taken to the port so the mob would not lynch my great-grand father, who had been a general. Everyone said I looked just like him. My mother never, ever talked about this, other relatives did.
My Mom, even more than my dad, wanted to make this work, this was the land that she loved, the land that she had grown up. Even though at one point, as a teenager she had to leave. She never said if she got deported. In a way she had a distorted version of what America was, she still lived in the idea of Leave it to Beaver, of white picket fences and happy innocent people in 50’s commercials. She ignored that the world around, the America that we came to had turned into a place with crack cocaine, drug addiction, rampant crime, homelessness and inflation. In her world there were no Vietnams, civil rights movements or race riots – only Norman Rockwell paintings with happy smiles around the dinner table.
In the following weeks I taught my guys how to make their own slingshots. We decided also, to keep it a secret. We crossed Buford Highway and went to the back of an abandoned Shoney’s Restaurant and took empty beer bottles and aligned them on top of a dumpster. Then shot at them. We got so good that we could hit the bottle and break it at more than twenty feet. We were ready for battle.
Before going into the creek we stopped by the Shoney’s parking lot and looked around for rocks. We made sure that we had at least one pocket full of them and all of us had a rock inside the pouch of the slingshot. We single-filed into the woods and down the banks into the creek. We ran along the side of the sand bars and arrived at the place where we had been ambushed before. They were not there. We continued northeast along the creek, moving like an army with a purpose. We ran across a couple of kids. We hid and watched them from the distance. They did not have any type of BB guns. They simply played in the sand bank on the side of the creek. We kept moving north but didn’t see anybody. We came out of the creek and were in the back of a baseball diamond. Kids were spread out on the field, while others stood around the bullpen looking at the kid at bat. They had no uniforms, so this was an improvised game. We came quietly and looked at every single kid, studied their reaction, wondering if any of them were part of that other group. Obviously they were not the kids we were looking for, since they ignored us for the most part, and at one point they even asked us if we wanted to play.
We went back to the creek and headed to our own neighborhood. We arrived at our apartment complex, disappointed. It was getting late and some of the moms started screaming the names of their kids. It was time for dinner.
“And?” My brother asked me when I got home. “¿Qué paso, carajito?”
I told him that nothing had happened, that we didn’t see any of them. He reminded me that I needed to always be ready. He told me that in Caracas he would be coming back from school, when out of nowhere there would appear a couple of malandros that wanted to mug him. They wanted his cheap watch, his Adidas tennis shoes, anything that seemed to have value. Only down there when you wanted to defend yourself, you wanted to draw blood, take them out, have no mercy. Or it was going to be your ass.
Caracas, where we were originally from, was a mix of middle class neighborhoods, high rise building and then the slums and shanties made out of exposed brick block and dirt floors, with open sewers. When you got mugged, if they were not happy with what they extracted from you, they would either cut you, or beat you senseless, when the malandros got Glocks an Uzzis, and they simply shot you dead.
“And?” I asked him.
“I survived. I leaned in the Llanos with cousin Joaquin, killing palomitas.”
We went to the creek a few times looking for them, and since we could not find them, we decided to pick clumps of red Georgia clay and fight with each other. It was a lot of fun. We were hiding from each other when one of the guys yelled really loud in pain.
“It’s them, Jesus. it’s them, they’re here.”
We laid low until all of our guys were by the bank of the creek hiding by an overturned grocery store cart. This time we could see them coming. We pulled out the real rocks. They got to the edge of the bank and fired at us. We shot back. I hit one of them on the shoulder, Kim hit a kid on the chest.
“What’ta hell’s that!!” They screamed. “You fucking wetbacks, we’re going to get you.”
We ran along the creek away from them, climbed up the bank and flanked them. Then we let them have it. I noticed this one kid with blonde, longish hair aiming his BB gun at me. I extended my slingshot with all the power I could muster and released it. His shot scratched my eyebrow. The rock I sent towards him smacked him right on the forehead. He fell to the ground and made an agonizing sound. They stopped shooting and gathered around him. I told our guys to stop. We went to where they gathered, and aimed our slingshots at them. A couple of kids pulled their guns up at us. I pulled the slingshot all the way back and stared at one of them right in the eyes. All my guys did the same thing.
“Go ahead,” I said, ready to rip his head off with rocks. The kid put his gun down. I eased down my slingshot, but then pulled it back up and aimed it at the other kids that had their BB guns slightly up. I looked down at the blond kid. He had a lump above his eye and it was already puffy and purple, and starting to drip blood. My eyebrow stung from the sweat and I pulled my hand over it and got smeared some blood.
“Take him away,” I said.
“He’s really hurt,” one of them said.
“We were really hurt when you shot us before.”
“Sorry, it was just a game,” one of them said.
“A game? Go! Or we finish this right now.”
The other kids put their guns on their shoulders and helped the blond kid get up. He was in pain and I could see that he wanted to cry but did not. He finally looked at me in the eye, first with hate and anger, then as he looked around that we had all our slingshots aimed at him, with resentment.
“You need to go,” I said.
He lifted his gun, but before he pointed it at us he fell to the ground. All the kids eyes got very big. I got a little worried, remembering some of the stories that my brother had told me of the riots and the military police, the Seguridad Nacional in Venezuela. Maybe I had gone too far.
“Come on, let’s pick him up,” I said. “We need to take him to his home.”
“Nah, nah. That is not a good idea,” one of the white kids said.
“His Mom’s boyfriend will kill him.”
“He’s hurt, I’m sorry. You guys started this,” I said a little panicky.
The bump on his forehead started to get bigger and now his eye was swollen shut. A small river of blood lined the side of his face.
“We have to do something, Jesus,” Kim, my Asian friend said.
“We need to take him somewhere,” one of the white kids said.
“Come on,” I said. If I was going to get in trouble the only place that I could think to take him was to see my dad. So we lifted him, went alongside the creek, White kids, Asian kids, Persian kids, Black kids, Latino kids. We arrived at the abandoned restaurant and came out of the creek. We moved to the front. There were cars going across the four-lane highway so we waited. When the traffic went down, we crossed Buford Highway, all us kids lifting the blond kid. We made it to the other side of the highway and went along the side of the road until we found the uphill concrete road in our complex and our apartment. We arrived and I could see on the balcony of the second floor, where our apartment was, my older brother smoking a cigarette staring in the distance, past the garbage dumpster. He looked in my direction and realized that the battle had taken place. He rushed to where we were.
“Coño, carajito, what’ta fuck did you do?” My brother said.
“They shot first,” Kim and some of my guys responded.
“Is dad back from work?” I asked.
“He is, but shit, chamo. He’s not in a good mood. He’s going to skin you alive, Jesus.”
We brought the blond kid to the apartment. My dad was watching TV in his room, so when he came out he had an angry look in his face. When he saw what was going on, his expression changed. I did not know how to read him. Was he angry? Was he what? Was he just assuming the look he had when with a patient? He put on his glasses and asked to have the kid put on a chair. He examined his face, looked at his eyes, pressed his hands, touched his face, asked him questions, then got up, told me to get some warm water in a bowl and went back to his bedroom.
I rushed to the kitchen, now scared, found a metal bowl and turned on the faucet and waited for the hot water to come out. I touched it to make sure it was not too hot, filled the bowl and took it to the dinning room area where the blond kid sat by a chair and a ton of kids stood around him. I realized that all my friends were there, but also all the other white kids. I placed the water on the table. He looked horrible. A drop of blood stringed down to his neck. My dad came back with his black medical leather bag and a washcloth. He immersed the washcloth in the warm water, squeezed it and with the most incredible care cleaned the face of the kid. He was so good at it, that the kid just closed his eyes and never complained about any pain. He pulled out some gauze from his black bag and cleaned the scratches around the wound. Then he asked the kid to follow his finger with his eyes and a few other things that looked totally weird, like asking him to press his hand hard, or could he feel my dads poke in some area.
“Have you had a tetanus shot this year?” My dad asked the kid.
“I don’t know,” the blond kid answered.
“So, what happened?” My dad asked.
“He fell,” Kim said. “By the creek, from the bank. We were playing.”
My dad quickly looked around, lowering his glasses. I’m quite sure he noticed the BB guns, and some of the kids holding the slingshots. He then looked at me and at my brother, as if he could read through everything that had taken place. I was going to be in deep trouble.
My dad said to come over, and out of his bag he pulled a piece of gauze and poured from one of his bottles a yellowish looking thing. He applied it to my forehead with a tenderness I had never seen from him before.
“No es nada hijo. Un rajuño’” he said. It’s nothing but a scratch, son.
My mother arrived with some shopping bags and her eyes got really big.
“What’s going on, Jesus?” She said, looking at the apartment filled with all these kids, all looking quite scruffy and banged up.
“We were just playing over behind the abandoned restaurant and he felt down,” Kim said.
“Kim, you’re not a good liar,” My mom said. “You guys were by the creek.”
My mom, quickly looked at the other kids that were banged up, offered water and tamarind juice and pulled from the refrigerator leftover food. She took out some croquettes, white rice and black beans, several empanadas, carne mechada shredded beef, some sweet plantains and reheated them. She also pulled some arepas out and practically had these two armies of armageddon eating and drinking.
This is my first recollection of my mom doing this, but it became a signature of her strength and attitude. In the future she did the same, to soccer teams, mountaineers coming back banged up from going to the Andes, protesters being hit by plastic bullets by riot police.
“What is your name, and where do you live,” my dad asked on his thick accent to the blond kid.
“Kyle, Kyle Hathaway. I… I live in 3439 Huntington Court.”
“Hmmm, where’s that?” My dad asked.
“I think that is about two miles from here,” My mom said. “You kids are rather far from home.”
“We all play together,” one of the white kids said. “From the baseball fields to the abandoned Shoney’s Restaurant.”
“I see,” my mom said.
My mom served the empanadas, arepas and other leftovers. The white kids looked at it strange, while all the ethnic kids, just grabbed something. It took a while for the white kids to actually start eating. They saw the rest of the kids eat, so they put stuff on a plate, smelled it, touched it and then placed it on their mouths and looked at each other as they chewed the strange food. Some of the white kids asked what were they eating, and were quite disgusted, while some asked for more. All the dark skinned kids just ate with abandon.
After a while my mom told them that they needed to go home, that their moms would be getting worried about them soon. So most of the kids left.
“I think we need to take this one home ourselves,” my dad said, looking at the blond kid. “He’s a little banged up, but he will be fine. Golpes del crecimiento. We need to tell his parents that he must have a tetanus shot. And that is serious matter.”
We got in the car and drove up Buford Highway along the boulevard of apartment complexes, until the kid told us to turn right. We drove through an area of small houses, some dilapidated, others with all kinds of junk and cars on the front.
“Here,” the kid said.
My dad stopped. “This one?” He asked.
“Yeah,” Kyle said.
We went into the driveway. The gravel crackled under the car until we stopped and my dad opened his door. Kyle sat there with a blank look on his face. Then looked at my dad and at me and a tear came out of his eye. He frowned, taking a deep breath and opened the door. We all went outside. As we walked to the house a tall white man came out with sleepy eyes, buttoning his shirt as he paced towards us.
“What’s going on?” The guy asked, looking suspiciously at my dad, then at Kyle. Then he noticed how banged up he was and his face turned red with anger.
“What’ta fuck did you do Kyle?” He smacked him over the head, right where his bandages were.
“Careful,” my dad said in a deep voice.
The guy looked up at my dad defiantly.
“He has hematoma. Give him Ibuprofen to reduce the swelling, but more importantly… he needs to get tetanus shot.”
“Did somebody do this to him?” The man asked agitated.
“The children told me that he fell bad. They were all playing.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We were playing rough. Kyle, try to get better.”
Kyle was in a state of shock so he lifted his hand and said goodbye to me and smiled.
“And you are?” The man asked, looking at my father with a frown, clenching his fist.
“I am doctor Federico Gonzaga, I am, Jesus’ father. Your son, needs tetanus shot, is matter of life or death.”
“I see, thank you,” the man said, holding his fist then calming down, looking at Kyle with suspicion, then at us, forcing a smile.
The battle of the little big creek was over, but for the next three weeks it was repeated in school over and over. It turned out that this was not the only time that the non whites had fights with the white kids. Fortunately, none of the teachers found out. As things began to calm down, we went back to the creek and played a few times, then one day they were there, all the white kids. But this time they did not have guns, or what it seemed like any weapons. I recognized Kyle among them. They were above the embankment. They could have destroyed us. So we pulled our slingshots out, but Kyle scream at us, we come in peace. We lowered our weapons. They came down the bank and introduced themselves. We told them our names and shared stories of where we came from. How long we had been here. I find it in retrospect interesting, the naïveté of children, some not knowing of the dangers that their parents faced to get here. Simply saying Iran, Korea, Salvador, Colombia, others casually saying that after a Sandinista body was found hanging from the tree in front of their house, they had to leave. But these white kids had their stories as well, some were from the South–Alabama, Mississippi–others came from as battered places as Flint, Detroit and Cleveland.
After the introductions we did what kids do. We played. They asked questions about our weapons. And at first I said that we could not tell them, they were secret, but after playing that afternoon, we showed them how to make their own slingshot and they taught us how to play baseball. They showed us how to play American football, we showed them how to play futból.