— a short story —
‘Border Feud’ will appear in October 2018 in Retreats to Oblivion (https://retreatsfromoblivion.com/)
That summer in Oxnard was hot, humid in the mornings, with dew on the grass, and it smelled of the lima bean harvest and the sugarbeet mill out on Wooley Road. Now it was night, just on nine o’clock under a low, lemon moon, and Chuy Muro, in his ‘39 Chevy coupé, was pulling across the oil-stained pavement of my brother-in-law’s Signal station. Chugging out puffs of exhaust, the car slithered toward me, and I strolled over and ducked my head through the passenger window. Inside, the car smelled of witch hazel and moldy upholstery, with mariachi music, full of trumpets and accordions, spilling out of the hardtop’s radio. A spit-stained Pall Mall hung between Chuy’s white-picket teeth, his black-marble eyes roaming over my face.
“Qué pasa, chico?” he said. “You seen the Zunigas?” Reaching down, he pulled a sawed-off 12-gauge from a clip under the dash, setting off butterflies in my gut the size of fruit bats. As he laid it on the seat, his hard, glinting eyes turned back to me.
“Ain’t seen ’em lately.” I said it in English, but not too steady, considering the hardware under his hand. Some cholo dudes thought I spoke a little español because my best friend Gene threw it around now and then, buying us some respect, so, even if we weren’t tight, Chuy and I, we were cool. But this was no United Nations meeting, and that shotgun still lay between us. I said, “Saw Victor heading home after work.”
Chuy studied his windshield. “Going home, huh?”
“Yep, around six, just after.”
Was that shotgun a threat to Victor and Freddie Zuniga? Or was it just Chuy’s night-time machismo, part of his hard-ass style? Looking through his windshield, he seemed to settle on something and hit the car’s starter. “’Sta bueno. Hasta luego.”
“Yeah,” I said, “later.”
Chuy motored off, a plaque from the Playboys, a Latino car club, hanging in his rear window, swinging black and silver in the moonlight.
I took a long pull on a Dr. Pepper, and went back to thinking about my life. I’d been saving money for a trip with Gene before school started again, down to Ensenada where we could buy beer. We’d also heard stories of guys scoring with California babes in Mexico, important news for two hairy-legged sixteen-year-olds like us.
Gene and I went way back, before we could pee standing up. We’d talked recently about the Mexico trip, or just blowing this town, breaking out to find our lives. Big decisions, but we’d agreed to do something big, and do it together.
Then his voice clattered out of the dark. “Hey! Señor Eduardo! What’s up?”
It was Gene on the scene, and a giggle hit my stomach and a buzz ran down my neck as he crossed the station lot. In his red windbreaker, white T-shirt, and Levis, he was pimping the too-cool, hip-rolling sashay of the street. From his wide smile, with his devil-may-care shrug, he said, “So, what’s the happs, Mr. Ed? Any dollies cruise in tonight?”
“Nah. But Chuy Muro was here looking for the Zunigas,” I said. “Had a cut-down 12-gauge on him.”
Gene flinched, staring like a little kid. “You bullshit artist. Choochie didn’t have a gun.”
“Fuck if he didn’t. He showed it plain as day.” We talked tough, but we were just kids.
Gene was jumpy. “That is fucked up, Hot Rod. Is he looking to kill somebody?”
“Scare ’em, more likely,” I laughed. “Chuy ain’t the killing type.”
“You don’t know that.”
“That’s right, so I ain’t calling the cops on him.”
Gene shook his head and looked away, unhappy with the story, then went back to women. “So, no babes through tonight?”
“None for you, Geno Reno. Besides, you ain’t getting any this century.” I swigged the Dr. Pepper. “You working tomorrow?” We worked days in the lemon orchards.
“Hell, yes,” he said, “making the big coin. See you in the a.m.”
I nodded. “Seven o’clock. Burgers at Topp’s.”
A salty night breeze drifted off the ocean a mile away, and Gene drifted off toward Fifth Street, feet splayed and shoulders hunched, his collar turned-up against the wind, Roy Orbison singing “Only the Lonely” on the office radio. As the years pass, I still recall that night, Orbison’s song and what it meant, Gene strutting across my memory like a living ghost of the time, and part of me reaching into the dark to pull him back.
Frostie’s was a north-end burger stop on the evening cruise, a loop that divided Spanish-speaking, east-of-the-tracks la Colonia from the white side of town to the west. Cars full of teenagers slid south out of Frostie’s, down the Boulevard to the Blue Onion, back up A Street, and back to Frostie’s. We didn’t cross into the barrio, and they didn’t come out much. Still, when three Playboys in a maroon ’48 Merc rolled out of la Colonia and into Frostie’s one night, no one took much notice—at first.
Gene and I were sitting at a table near the order window, lemon smells from the Sunkist plant drifting across the Boulevard on the summer air, Johnny Cash crooning Ring of Fire from a radio nearby. The three vatos backed the Merc into a white-lined stall, then wandered over to order some food at the window. As they walked back and leaned against their ride, talking and eating, Wayne Pruitt turned off Doris Avenue onto A Street in his hot-rod ’52 Olds, Kevin “Fatboy” Fleischer riding shotgun.
Spotting the three Latino “invaders,” Pruitt spun straight into Frostie’s lot, bending forward in his seat to pin them with his gravel-gray eyes. He parked and stepped easy out of the car, Fatboy following, and they bought two Cokes and strolled back to the Olds. Wayne looked at Fatboy like he fit his nickname too well.
“You figure they belong here, Kev?”
Fatboy preferred being called Kev. “Fuck no. They belong across the tracks unless they’re picking crops.”
“That’s how I see it,” Pruitt said, throwing his cup in the trash barrel. He lit up from a Zippo, strolling around the Merc, squinting at the owners through the smoke of his Chesterfield.