Deliver Me tells the story of Daniel Joaquín Corriente, a 24 year-old college senior who unexpectedly finds himself at the intersections of several identities (Mexican/Chicano/Anglo, straight/queer, thug/intellectual). Along the way, Daniel will learn lessons both welcome and unwelcome from a variety of characters including an abusive professor, a racist boss, a courageous junkie, a former love, and an old woman obsessed with his character flaws and green pepper pizzas. During his last year of college, Daniel must ultimately determine what kind of person he wants to be in the world: one who does what is expected of him, or one who embarks on an uncertain journey promising little more than opportunity.
The shop is packed tonight, every table, booth, and bar stool taken and a line to the door for to-go slices. Zane’s hands are a blur at the register, Brenda’s out on some marathon convention run, Juan and Mario are heads-down pushing dough across the cornmeal-covered prep table, and I’m slinging slices and beers until my pizzas are ready.
“Dan, I’m gonna need you to bus the dining room,” Zane barks over his shoulder.
“No way, dude. Brenda’s out for at least another hour and I’ve got a shitload of tickets about to come out hot.”
Zane opens his mouth and then shuts it fast. Between customers needing to clear their own tables and deliveries not showing up, he knows you prioritize the deliveries on a busy night like this.
“Face it, boss. Your cheap ass needs to hire a full-time swing-shift cashier.”
I finish loading up the bar fridges and check on the pizzas when Juan points past me, a look of pity on his face.
Painfully skinny, bleach-blonde with black roots, creeping slowly towards the bar.
No, no, no, shit timing, Yolanda.
Mario begins poking at the pizzas in the oven with the peel.
Yolanda catches my eye and shambles to the counter. Zane hasn’t seen her yet.
“Hey, hey, Dani. Can I have the key?” Yolanda wipes snot from her nose and her boney shoulders quiver under her tank top.
“Yolanda, you know Zane doesn’t want you in here.”
“I know. Pásame la llave, orita güey. I really gotta go.” Yolanda does a wobbly jitterbug to show me what might happen if I don’t put the key in her shaking hand.
“What about the taquería next door, or the club?”
“C’mon, Dani!” Yolanda spits. She looks dope sick, desperate enough to lunge across the bar. –Los pinches mejicanos no me dejan entrar ahí, y el club...chále.– The fucking Mexicans won’t let me in there, and the club...no way.
Mario claps me on the shoulder. “Rrready, Daniel.” Mario’s English is so heavily accented I almost don’t understand him. –Hay un chingo de deliveries, ‘mano.–
I look at the three delivery bags. He’s right. There will indeed be a fuckload of pizzas on this run.
Mario frowns and holds up one ticket in particular. –Fíjate, güey. Este ticket es un poco raro.– Check it out, dude. This ticket’s a little weird.
“Dani, gimme the fucking key!” Yolanda yells.
–Daniel, no más dále la pinche llave, cabrón– Juan says. Just give her the damn key, asshole.
“Dan, get that junkie out of here!” Zane shouts from the register.
–Daniel, escúchame, güey. Este pendejo me dijó su nombre, pero no estoy seguro...– Listen to me, dude. This fuckhead told me his name, but I’m just not sure…
“Everybody, shut the fuck up.” I hold my hands out, eyes closed. My brain is a blender spinning with English and Spanish and Spanglish and Englañol.
I duck under the counter and grab the three delivery bags with one arm. My other arm I throw around Yolanda’s nothing waist and start towards the front door. She can’t weigh more than ninety pounds.
Customers are laughing and some clap, but I want to cry because Yolanda’s whimpering into my shoulder. “Please, Dani. I just need a place. One little place.” The musk of street and B.O. coming off her makes it worse. I set her down halfway to the corner of Market, away from the shop and the taquería and the line forming in front of DB Cooper’s. She leans against a brick wall, one eye raking me from under her bleach-fried hair.
“Someday what, Yolanda? Tell me exactly what!” I can’t stand this feeling that she needs something from me.
“Someday you won’t just do what they expect you to do. All I needed was a place, fucking delivery boy.”
Yolanda stands as straight as she can and brushes the hair from her face. Several cars stop to honk as she crosses Market against the red.
She reaches the other side of the street and looks back at me. I hold my hands up, What else could I do?
She cradles her body with one arm. The other she peels off herself to flip me off. I lose sight of her in a crowd before she reaches North First.
The heat against my ribs reminds me I’m holding an hour’s worth of work. I pull the tickets from the top bag and manage a smile at my first delivery.
A Splendid Pain In The Ass
–Hola, Daniel. ¿Cómo te ha ido?– How’s it been going?
I need to leave Yolanda behind in my head. Just lie, DJ. –Bien-bien, Señora. ¿Y usted?–
–¡Bah! Es lo que es, joven.– It is what it is. Ms. Magaña makes a show of inspecting her pizza, but she’s got me in her crosshairs.
–¿En qué puedo servirle, Señora?– How can I help you?
–¿Tienes novia, Daniel?– Do you have a girlfriend?
“Are you asking for yourself or a friend, old woman?”
Ms. Magaña laughs hard enough to end up coughing into her napkin. –Uy– she says, catching her breath. –En serio, ¿tienes novia?–
“Yes, I have a girlfriend–I mean fiancé.”
“Which is it, menso, girlfriend or fiancé? They’re different, you know. Some men I’ve known have had both. At once.”
“Sorry, Señora. I’m still getting used to calling her my fiancé. We got engaged just before Thanksgiving.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she mumbles, savoring her green peppers. “And what is this fiancé’s name?”
“Lara. Sounds like a sorority girl name.”
“No, Señora. She works full-time. She’s a cosmetologist.”
“I see.” Ms. Magaña wipes her mouth and hands with one of the many paper towels she must stash in her lap blanket. What else does she keep under there? A horde of lottery tickets, marked playing cards, maybe a humidor stuffed with Cuban cigars.
“Does she speak Spanish, this Lara-the-Cosmologist?”
“Cosmetologist. No, she doesn’t.”
–Siéntate ahí.– She points her chin at a small wooden chair to my left. I take a seat wondering what’s going on.
We sit quietly for a minute watching M*A*S*H with no sound.
“I assume you love her very much,” she says finally.
Silence stretches between us long enough for Ms. Magaña to stop chewing and turn towards me. “I do,” I say. “Very much.”
“Are you two anything alike?”
“Why are you asking me that?”
“Why do I ask the delivery boy anything that’s none of my business? I’m a nosey old woman who doesn’t get out enough and is cursed with curiosity. Now back to you. A young man like yourself thinks about these things when he plans on marrying–or he should, at least.”
The space between us shrinks to nothing.
“Sometimes it’s like we’re on...different pages,” I say.
“Bah, ‘different pages.’ Use real words! None of that gabacho jargon, please. You two think differently about important things. Is that what you mean?”
I sit up straight. “Yes,” I say. “That’s normal, though. Right? I mean, we’re really different. It’s normal that we wouldn’t understand everything about one another.” Ms. Magaña just stares at me, chewing. “Isn’t it, Señora? Normal?”
“You really are quite invested in this ‘normal’ idea, aren’t you? Híjole how unflattering.” Her fingers seek out another slice of pizza as she rolls her eyes. –Apuesto a que te sientes lo más blanco entre los mejicanos y lo más étnico entre los anglosajónes, ¿qué no?–
Bet you feel like the whitest one among Mexicans and the most enthnic among Anglos, right?
I try to hold back a smile. “Is nothing sacred with you viejona? It’s a good thing you’re old,” I say breaking into a laugh.
“Tread lightly, joven.” Ms. Magaña’s eyes twinkle. “You have no idea what I keep under this blanket. Back to this fiancé. You love each other–that should be enough, don’t you think?”
The truck’s down in the loading spot with pizzas to deliver. Still, I can’t bring myself to leave. “Yeah, well…” I look away and take a deep breath. “No. It’s not.” No way in hell I’m telling Ms. Magaña what Lara wants me to call her in Spanish. “Sometimes she thinks she knows what it means to ‘be Mexican.’ I don’t even know what that means, but it still bothers me when she thinks it’s so easy to understand. Like because I’m with her, she just has this...insight, this right to…I don’t know.”
“To appropriate,” Ms. Magaña says, still smiling.
“Yeah. Good word.” Appropriation. The word "queen" slides out from under some rock in my memory. I pull my hands over my face. Marcos. What right did I have?
–Así que te encuentras en un rompecabezas existencial.– Mrs. Magaña uses words I’ve only ever read and never spoken.
And so you find yourself in an existential puzzle.
“You want to be normal, to not stand out, but when your fiancé assumes she understands your culture, you don’t like it because she can’t appreciate how you two are different.”
We sit quietly again, the only sound Ms. Magaña’s chewing. I’m pretty sure the rest of my deliveries are screwed because I’m not going anywhere right now. I sit there wondering what "my culture" is.
“I was married twice,” she says, breaking the silence. “The second time much longer than the first. The second time it took quite a while to understand that we didn’t know one another. Not the deepest parts, at least. I accepted that he would never understand the parts of me that I was most proud of, the parts that were the hardest to translate for him.”
I stare at the picture on the bookshelf, no longer feeling like I need to be subtle about it.
“I wasn’t normal, Daniel. I did things, wanted to be things that people like me didn’t dare to hope for back then. My ‘home-ec’ teacher in high school–you know what ‘home-ec’ was?–well, she told me that I would make an excellent nanny to some wealthy family with high standards, because I was honest and smart and could use reason.”
Ms. Magaña’s voice has this razor-sharp edge that makes me pay very close attention.
“One day I recited Shakespeare out loud in my English class. We had been reading King Lear and I stood up and read that line ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ Uy, Daniel. My heart burst open at those words. How could some panty-hosed Englishman, four hundred years ago, write words that spoke to the soul of a poor Mexican girl who was supposed to grow up to become someone’s servant? It made no sense.”
She pauses to savor a slice especially heavy with green peppers. “My English teacher said to me, ‘You don’t make sense. You don’t fit. I’ve never known anyone like you!’ At first I was angry, and hurt, until I realized that he meant it as a compliment. I wasn’t like any other Mexican girl he’d ever taught, apparently. That was when he told me I needed to study at a university, that it would be a waste if I didn’t. Can you imagine?” Ms. Magaña shakes her head. “That bitch of a home-ec teacher failed me on purpose to try and keep me from going on to college, but I got in anyways. I could never decide whether my English teacher encouraged me to save me from what waited for me or to rehabilitate me by making me white. Or both.”
Sitting there listening to Ms. Magaña I feel awe and guilt–awe at what she was able to do, and guilt that what was expected of me was a dream for her. With Alma, there was never any doubt I was going to college. Anything less represented total failure, a catastrophic rupture in the Dani Corriente Assimilation Pipeline.
“De todos modos, I didn’t sit you down to brag about college. You’re a college boy, you get it. The point is, I crossed lines, Daniel. I did things that didn’t make sense to people because who I was didn’t correspond to who they thought I was. I didn’t make sense to them. Goodness, sometimes I didn’t make sense to myself. ¿Sí me explico, joven? Bien.
“You, Daniel. You bring me pizzas and say tonterías and I’ve never known you except here in my apartment, but I can see that you are someone who crosses lines, even if you don’t know it. You do things–and think, and read, and feel things–that don’t make sense to other people and so they will make their ignorance and confusion your fault. And that can make you think and do stupid things. Stupider than the average man.
“I’ve spent my life watching people, Daniel. We have some things in common, you and I. You, young man, could be a splendid pain in the ass if you set your mind to it.”
La Chota (Part 2)
I don’t hate cops. But, like many of my relationships, things have been complicated. It’s even more complicated when the cop blows me up with his spotlight while my dick’s in my hand.
I should have held it, but the train just kept going and going and going. The tracks bisect downtown northeast to southwest–which probably made sense a hundred years ago, but now is just a major pain in the ass for a pizza delivery driver on a busy Friday night still pondering what an old woman has said in her assisted living facility apartment. Anywhere I go, left or right, the train will be there. I wouldn’t be surprised if this thing stretched from Milpitas to Los Gatos, engine to caboose. I’m stuck there in the dark, the only vehicle on this side of the monstrous machine keeping me from the bliss of urination.
So I sit, and I sit, and I sit, and meanwhile my bladder whimpers, and then cries, and then screams, until it gets so bad that I jump out of the truck and race up to the railroad crossing sign and barely manage to unbutton before the piss comes spraying out of me. And it’s not like one of those all-business surgical strikes. Like the train, it just keeps going and going and going.
Except while I’m going the train ends and the caboose rumbles past to reveal a police cruiser, one of those crap Dodge Diplomats they drive, parked on the other side of the crossing. This is like a dam has burst. You can’t simply say, Uh-oh, la chota, better zip up, because there’s no stopping this, so that sorry Dodge Diplomat’s bubblegum lights erupt and the cop hits me with his spotlight and he actually has time to drive over the tracks, past my truck, turn around, and pull up alongside me–all with my member still blasting a torrent of hot Pepsi-fueled piss.
I’m only just starting to hope that my bladder is near empty when the Dodge’s door opens. The spotlight is so dazzling it’s like my brain is impaled in the dark. I squint at the figure standing on the other side of the cop car.
“Mr. Daniel Joaquín Linnich Corriente. We do need to stop meeting like this.”
“When was your first physical altercation, Daniel?”
If Lawrence had a tell, it was that he played with his shirt button, the one closest to his collar. He was subtle about it, but he did it at very specific times. He would do it when he was getting impatient with my avoiding a question. He would also reach for his collar when the question was very important, something he considered key to understanding me and me understanding myself.
So, of course, his fingering his button at that moment put me on edge because I knew he thought this was a big deal.
“When I was really little. It was with another boy”
Lawrence slowly rolled the button between his index finger and thumb. “Can you tell me about it?”
This whole night’s been a clown show.
First Yolanda. I never should have touched her and wish for just once in my life I could go back to the second before I lost my patience with her. Then there’s all the time I spent at Ms. Magaña’s. She’s all in my head about Lara and what it means to be normal and who the fuck gets to decide what’s normal and what it means to talk with your girlfriend or fiancé or spouse or whoever about the things that are important to you. And Marcos. I’ve been thinking more about him lately and wonder if Henry has anything to do with it.
So all this thrashing in my head has led to me getting turned around twice–TWICE!–in a part of town I should know better than my own face, which not only made the pizzas even later than they would have been, but is also really fucking embarrassing. Next, I get a lecture from my new best friend, Lieutenant Michaels, about the possible repercussions of a public indecency citation–which he very condescendingly declined to give me.
And now I’m turning onto a section of North 9th that’s about as pitch-black as any street I’ve delivered to. In all the nights I’ve spent criss-crossing downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, I still haven’t figured out how one street can thrive, the next struggle to hang on, and the next just give up.
This block gave up a long time ago.
I turn down the radio and let the truck coast to a crawl while scanning the south-side houses. The rundown Victorians are set back from the street past weed-choked yards and I can’t see any street numbers. I look for anything that will tip me off to the right address and decide that I’ll have to go on dead reckoning. Middle of the block will be a good place to start.
The pizza’s barely warm when I slide it from the delivery bag. This is the delivery Mario started to tell me about. –Este ticket es un poco raro– he said. A little weird.
I listen to the engine tick in the dark and realize I’m procrastinating, my mood growing worse by the second. The shit slide I’m racing down started with Yolanda. Usually, Ms. Magaña puts me in a better or more thoughtful mood, but tonight she just got me all spun up. I’ve got no tips in my bag and now Mario’s goddamn chicken scratch has me running blind on the sketchiest of streets.
So why not let that slide dump me in a steaming shit sauna?
My graduate applications. Who do I think I am trying to go to grad school? Certainly someone who gets stopped by the cops for urinating in public shouldn’t try to live a life of the mind, right? Alma. My mother sneaks around in the dark leaving me care packages. Is that love or manipulation or are they the same thing? Am I a terrible son? A terrible brother? I try to haul myself out of the pity pit by thinking about Lara, but then I shit on that because I either don’t deserve her or I need to do some serious thinking about what it means to be in a ‘normal’ relationship.
That appointment I laid it all out for Lawrence. It was the only time we went a half hour over. By the end of it, I was covered in sweat, my hands aching from gripping the couch cushions.
The first fight I remember was when Bill took me to the cabin of some woman he knew up past Lompico, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I was maybe four or five and surprised that the woman was so white and her son was so dark. He was older but shorter than me, and he looked different than his mother. I thought we could get along because of that, like maybe we had that in common. Bill and the woman went into the bedroom. Pretty much immediately the boy pushed me up against the wall and started spitting on me.
Not long after they had closed the door, Bill and the woman came running out half naked because of the other boy’s shrieking. They saw me standing over him with my fists raised. The boy shielded his face with his hands and the blood from his nose ran down into his ears.
The mother screamed at me. Bill acted like he was angry, but really he was glowing. “Nice job, champ!” he said as we sped down the twisting mountain road in his van.
That was the first time I remember him being proud of me.
I only saw Bill maybe once or twice a year, but after that we would play a game if we had time to kill at a highway rest stop or camp site or his apartment in Santa Cruz. He would stand a few feet away and tell me to come at him. I knew I couldn’t refuse because the first time I ran the other way. It was bad when he caught me.
With no other options, I’d ball up my fists and run at him swinging as hard as I could. I’d usually hit the ground before I got close. He’d hit me open-handed and usually in the ribs or back or upper head–the harder for Alma to see the bruises, I guess. Sometimes he’d knife-hand me in the groin, other times he’d twist my arm around and tell me to get loose. That was worse than being hit, that suffocating feeling of being tied up from behind by a man who smelled of sweat and unfiltered Camels.
No way I could tell Alma about any of this. Things between her and Cami were getting worse and asking for help would have only added to the difficulties at home.
Our matches continued until one night, when I was maybe eight or nine and starting to get taller. Bill stood me up in his apartment kitchen and told me to come at him. I snapped, like an M-80 went off behind my eyes. I rushed in under his arms and buried the crown of my head in his groin. Before he could finish shouting “MUTHERFU–!” I flipped the coffee table and everything on it–ashtray, toolbox, empty beer bottles–onto him and sprinted down the stairwell onto busy Soquel Avenue. I ran until I got to the Golden West parking lot and sat on the curb next to the phone booth.
Alma had given me money in case of emergencies. I could go inside, get change, and then call. I didn’t.
Bill found me later that night, still sitting on the curb. When I saw him coming, I got ready to run because I’d started soccer and was pretty sure I could out-sprint him. He just held up his hands and then mussed my hair. He led me by the elbow into the Golden West and ordered me pigs in a blanket and bottomless hot chocolate even though it was almost midnight. He called me "killer."
That was the second and last time I knew he was proud of me.
What am I supposed to do with all that, Lawrence?
Fuck this, I say to no one, to everyone. Nothing good is happening in this truck cab. May as well get this last drop over with.
One of the three houses across the street should be the one I want. My foot touches the pavement and then I stop. There isn’t a single functioning streetlight on the block.
I reach down into the passenger footwell and pull Alma’s steering wheel lock out of its sheath.
When I first started delivering, I’d bring the thin steel rod with me on every sketch night run. But I quickly figured out it had a chilling effect on customers. Big stranger shows up at your door clutching a steel club. Doesn’t matter that he’s polite and holding your pizza. He’s armed. That makes you feel unsafe. And when you feel unsafe, you don’t exactly feel like handing the armed dude at your door a tip. Add to that the fact that I hadn’t really ended up in a situation where carrying it would have improved the outcome. It was a lose-lose.
I heft the scalloped rod, tuck it under the pizza box, and start across the street.
After driving these neighborhoods for eight months, I’ve learned that it’s impossible for a Victorian to not look haunted at night. The pitched gables, asymmetrical turrets, and shadowy covered porches make them all look like miniature Winchester Mystery Houses.
Halfway across the yard I can make out the address, the original numbers gone, but their vague silhouettes remain on the stained paint above the door. A couple windows are broken and the front door hangs open. I hold the ticket up to my face in the dark and curse. This place is abandoned and no way I’m banging around in there looking for some customer I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist.
I’m about to turn back for the truck when I hear it, a rustle to my left. Three guys step through a gap in the bushes and walk slowly across the driveway, straight for me. One of them drops a beer bottle, a dark stain creeping across the dusty gravel as it rolls at his feet.
They’re about fifteen feet away when all of this makes sense.
“Hey, Jessie,” I lift my chin, my voice calm, like he’s exactly who I’d expect to see here.
Jessie up-nods me back. “Quiúbole, whiteboy? Pónte listo, maricón, because this is gonna be bad.”
“Daniel, I believe you when you say that you don’t like to fight. I’ve seen nothing that would suggest you’re a willingly violent person. But…” Lawrence paused, his fingers fidgeting over his shirt button. “I’ve learned over the years that just about anyone is capable of anything, and you don’t need to be evil to cause harm in this life. In fact, I’m beginning to think that evil is really just a word we use for the opposite of what we want for ourselves and those we care about.”
“I’m listening, but I don’t know where you’re going with this.” The kitten in the poster stared into the room like it always did, scared but determined.
“I’m trying to say that even a basically good person can really mess up, Daniel. Do something that they’ll regret for the rest of their lives–or something just bad enough to get the wrong kind of attention and you will receive zero benefits of the doubt. That happens with brown and black people, Daniel. If we’re guilty, we’re more guilty. And if we’re not, we’re more likely to be found so anyways.”
Lawrence’s words rolled round my head. “Do you think I’m brown?”
“You’re…” He trailed off and aimed a wry smile at the ceiling. “You’re one of those people others will waste their time trying to nail down, Daniel. I worry, however, that if you ever give in to violence in a way that attracts attention, the system will use whatever it can against you to ensure you pay the full price, maybe more than you owe. It’s been a problem for a long, long time and I’m not sure anyone has prepared you for it.”
“Would I get to be Mexican in prison?” I winked.
We both laughed.
“Then what am I supposed to do?” I asked, suddenly serious. “Run away? Between running away and fighting, I’d rather fight. Even if I lose, I’d rather know that I didn’t run.”
Lawrence tapped his head with his finger. “Uh-uh, Daniel. There’s a third path. You can’t control all the variables, but you can control yourself. You have choices.”
They’re ten feet away. I can drop the pizza and haul ass. Shit, I could probably keep the pizza and still get away. There’s no way these payasos in their baggy-ass Ben Davises would catch me. No fucking way.
“Choices, Daniel. You can opt to see the humanity in others. You don’t have to like them, but you can acknowledge their humanity.” Lawrence let that sit for a while. “Violence dehumanizes everyone involved, Daniel. And violence that you could have avoided, for that brief moment, is not that different from murder.”
The three of them stop in front of me, Jessie in the middle. He holds his hands up. “¿Y ahora qué, cocksucker?”
–¿Qué clase de persona quieres ser?– Señora Magaña asked me. I hope not this kind, I think, gripping the steering wheel lock under the pizza box.
The chrome bar lands across Jessie’s temple. I’m only distantly aware of him dropping to the dirt as the bar hums in my hand. There’s movement to my right.
My second swing is sloppy. Instead of connecting with the side of the guy’s head, the tip catches the bridge of Number Two’s nose. *ping!* He shouts and bends over to cover his face with his hands.
The third swing is telegraphed and slow. Number Three pulls his chin like a boxer to let the bar swoop past and then he takes me down easily.
Up until this second I haven’t felt it, but now fear knifes me in the stomach and begins to spread through my legs, the kind of terror that leaves you limp as a boned fish.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Number Two stagger to his feet and run away just before Number Three starts to land punches from on top of me. I try to throw him off, but he’s too heavy. I force my legs to move, to get the feeling back. He smells like beer and pot and his punches are all over the place. I turtle up with my arms over my head and wonder what I’m supposed to do now.
The rain of punches slows when he tries to pull my arms away from my head. That’s when I feel him slide higher on my chest. I buck my hips in the air. He thinks I’m trying to push him off me, but I’m not. I need him to lean back. A punch connects hard on my cheek and I buck again. This time Three lands farther up on my chest, almost to my neck. He leans back hard to stay on top of me. I throw my hip up and manage to get my right leg over his head. Before he can grab hold, I hook my leg around his face and pull with everything I’ve got until he falls backwards onto the dirt.
I roll away and consider running to the truck. Now would be the time. I’ve proved my point. Jessie’s still down, the second guy ran away, and this barrel-chested fuckface will never catch me on foot. My ears are ringing and the side of my face is numb, but I can still use my legs.
“Pussy,” Number Three laughs as he stands up, wiping his face.
–Ya estuvo, güey– I say, holding my hands out in front of me.
“Fuck you, fool. I decide when it’s ov–”
I bury my right foot in Number Three’s junk and it goes way deep. He falls toward me and I step in with a knee, even harder. He grabs onto my shirt and rips it as he slides down. Then he does the last thing I would have ever expected.
He starts to cry.
Curled up in a fetal position with his hands between his legs, he gasps into his chest, “We just wanted to mess with you, ese. It wasn’t going to be anything bad, just fuck with you a little bit. Jessie said you’d be a little bitch. Ayyy fuck!” he groans and rolls over.
I take one step towards him. I’m either going to crush his skull or help him up.
An arm snakes around my neck from behind and another locks my head in place. My feet leave the ground and flail at empty space.
Calvin and Hobbes
The chokehold sinks deeper into my neck. I throw my weight and try to headbutt whoever’s behind me. Nope. I hear myself wheezing, trying to suck air past the vice that’s closing around my throat. Can’t. A fog gathers over the yard and the first thing to go is my depth perception. Sounds become muffled, softer.
As I start to accept the inevitability of passing out, my only clear thought is of the person who’s doing this and the cold, pure hatred I feel for him. It feels good. It’s the only thing between me and total darkness right now.
“You ain’t fucking shit, joto,” Jessie grunts in my ear. My tongue slams against the back of my teeth and spit flows from the corner of my mouth. My legs, somewhere down there, are lost to me and my breathing is too shallow to help me out much. In a few seconds I’m going to be lying flat on the dirt, either dead or about to be as Jessie and fuckwad Number Three decide how bad they want to get back at me.
S’alright, I tell myself. I tried. The Mercury will say things like:
Pizza delivery boy murdered downtown
And that’s it. That’s all I can think of. Nothing pithy or personally tragic. Nothing to make the casual reader feel any sorrow. Nothing about how I could have run away from these guys like Carl Lewis but instead was a fucking idiot. Just a dead pizza delivery driver, victim of another random act of violence that readers breeze past on the way to the business section or Bloom County or Doonsbury.
Calvin and Hobbes were always my favorite. Now there was a team. That was love.
I reach behind me and pull at Jessie’s hair and now I’m struggling to do up big braids for Alma and Cami, their thick hair too much for my skeleton hands. Doloris leaves me orange juice on the kitchen counter but then hides behind her piano when she sees her zombie grandson, his tongue hanging out and neck bruised and crooked from being strangled. Dr. Giangrande shakes her head at me, disappointed that I failed the last exam because I’m sitting dead and blue-faced in her classroom unable to wrap my decomposing brain around the passive periphrastic. Lawrence clucks his tongue and says that he’d put me on a psychiatric hold, but what’s the point now? You know, me being dead and all. Now Paloma, Pete, and Raúl are kicking my ass at a drinking game. They laugh at the tequila spilling through my open rib cage and we know we’re stalling because we really should bury Marcos for good. Now Ms. Magaña gives me a disgusted up-and-down. “¡Carajo! That’s who you chose to be?” she sneers. Now Lara hangs up the phone telling the person she’s talking to she has various and sundry things to take care of. She’s amazingly naked and wearing a sombrero and can get over the fact I’m dead so long as I call her a whore in Spanish.
Now a face I thought I’d forgotten, angular with perfect, high cheekbones. She wears a permanent smirk, but her black-button eyes are wide open pools and deep inside I wade through flaws and pain and goodness. Her fur is plushy and I want to bury my face in it and just go to sleep.
I guess that makes me Calvin. Calvin and Hobbes, man. Despite all their hang ups, they loved each other. I mean, like, truly loved each other.
The fact that I’m dead is not a deal-breaker for Hobbes. She’s been through some shit and bounced back. Maybe I could, too.
*dani dani dani stay awake*
Glass shatters across my neck. There’s cursing behind me and I fall to the ground, the air scraping past my tongue becomes gagging and then full-throated gasps.
Jessie’s bent over, yelling and holding the back of his head, next to him a rail-thin shadow wobbles in the dark. “BITCH!” Jessie yells and swings his meaty hand. The shadow is lifted off its feet in a spray of hair and lands limp in the dirt.
Something makes me move. Sucking air, I stand up, take three running steps, and blast Jessie in the face with my fist. Pain explodes up my forearm. When he doesn’t go down, I do it again, this time with my elbow.
I tell myself that he deserves this, that he’s deserved it ever since the first time I saw him, that I should have done this at Traffic School. That he and every other person who’s ever made me feel small and incomplete and called me whiteboy or joto deserves what I’m capable of doing right now.
Jessie squirms in the dirt, blood flowing from his face and head, an ugly dark line tattooed across the side of his shaved temple where I hit him with the steering wheel lock. I lift my foot to stomp him, to do everything I can to erase him and the shame and hatred I feel when I look at him.
“Bland!” the shadow shouts, its voice warbly and slurred.
I freeze. “What?”
The shadow rolls over. I’m not believing any of this.
Yolanda waves her arms above herself. “Bland, Dani! Your shit-for-brains gabacho boss needs to spice up his recipes. They’re good, but they’re too bland. ¡Es que no pican!” They have no bite! The voice trails off into gurgling, wet coughs.
There’s a tugging on my pant leg. With my free leg I kick Jessie in the face to get him off me. He tries to get up and I stomp him in the back until he rolls into a ball.
She lies flat on her back smiling up at me. “‘Cuz you needed me.” Her teeth are dark from blood and her nose is crooked. “Ayy-ya,” she moans, holding her cheek. “I think he broke my face, Dani.” I catch her when she tries to stand.
That’s when I hear the sirens.
“We gotta get out of here.” I let go of Yolanda to grab the bar and she sinks to the ground again.
I pull on her arm. “Come on, girl. Get up!”
“I can’t, Dani. Don’t leave me here. Please. The cops aren’t nice to me.”
The sirens are coming from both east and west.
“Fuck!” For the second time tonight, I pick up Yolanda. Crossing the street I can’t figure out why she’s so much heavier now and then it hits me that I’m weak from the adrenaline I’ve burned and almost being strangled to death. I fall ass-first into the driver’s seat and pull her across me.
I barely register the guttural sound of Yolanda puking into the footwell as I try to figure out where to go. They’ll be coming on Santa Clara for sure, but whether it’s also St. John or St. James is a crapshoot. I’ll have to turn onto one of them if I want to get to a north-south alleyway. I turn off the lights and take my chances on St. John. Without hitting my brakes I turn into the first alley and let the truck roll to a stop. Up ahead a police Diplomat races past heading west. I dump the clutch and turn east onto St. James. Yolanda falls across the cab and slams into me screaming, her bloody face mashing into my chest.
Five blocks from the hospital. Please, Cami. Be on shift tonight.
One of Them
“I did good,” Yolanda says through clenched teeth. I catch a glimpse of her swollen jaw when the ambulance races past, its gumball lights filling the truck cab with red, white, and blue flashes.
“I did good. I helped you, didn’t I?” She raises a hand to her face and clamps her eyes shut. Blood seeps from her nose onto her fingers.
“Yeah, you did.” She’s slumped against the passenger door. I reach across the cab and lock it. I have to wipe my eyes. Look at her, I think. Dopesick junky who actually picked up a bottle and cracked it over the head of a seriously bad man who could have snapped her like a toothpick. To help the guy who just kicked her out for wanting a place to pee. “Thank you,” I manage to get out.
She flips me off but takes my hand and squeezes when I offer it. Electric pain races up my arm.
“Just one thing,” she says in a whisper. “One last good thing.”
I’m still wondering what she meant when I pull up to the curb, a block from the emergency room. People mill around the entrance under the lights. Typical busy Friday night.
Yolanda spills into my arms when I open her door from the outside. “Gotcha,” I say as I catch her.
“My fucking hero,” she mumbles.
I kick the door shut and stumble towards the lights. “They don’t like me here, either,” Yolanda says as people step aside and let us through the sliding doors.
Behind a thick security window the grizzled intake nurse doesn’t even look up. Her voice crackles through the speaker. “What’s the emergency, please.”
I lean down to the speaker grate. “I need to see Cami.”
“She’s unavailable. What’s the emergency?” she asks, still looking down at her intake form.
“Tell Camila Corriente that her brother needs her right fucking now. Pretty please.”
The nurse looks up. She gapes at us for a full five seconds before picking up a phone. I can’t hear what she says behind the glass. She nods at me and I step back.
I’d like to put Yolanda down, but every seat is taken and I’m not sure I can lay her on the floor without collapsing. I’ve delivered here on busy nights before and, leaning against the wall in the corner, I realize that I’ve never truly seen it. My excuse is that I’m in a hurry, that I have a job to do, customers to serve. But the truth is there’s an ocean of pain and suffering that I’ve tried to rise above, like it has nothing to do with me.
When I come in here, self-conscious about being the pizza delivery boy, I concentrate on how the doctors don’t tip or get all full of myself when the nurses flirt–especially when they find out I’m Cami’s little brother. I pass through the security doors acting entitled to float above the shittiness like a hot air balloon because I have a job to do, no matter how menial. Now, I’m holding a shivering, mumbling, bloody, vomit-smeared wraith who might have saved my life in a totally unnecessary fight while my left cheek swells up and my hand throbs like I crushed it in a car door.
Who the fuck do I think I am acting like I’m any different from the others in this waiting room?
Emergency. Emergentia. Emergens. Ex-mergō, I repeat in my head. Ex-mergō: to rise up, surge out, break the surface. How cute that mister dumbass fight-picking college boy can trace the etymology of such an important word. More hot air.
I force my eyes open and scan the room. I want to truly see.
Mothers cradling their children, a homeless man with his scabby hands over his face, a boy leading an ancient woman to the water fountain, a teenage girl cradling another with a torn blouse. This is where we go when the shit in our lives emerges, comes forth. We struggle to keep a lid on it, but eventually the sewers overflow and there it is, filth running through the streets.
I’m one of them. It’s awful and liberating. I feel a perverse pride in knowing it.
I’m one of them.
The security doors open and Cami walks through. She’s wearing her powder blue scrubs and her long hair is now cut into a short bob like Alma’s. I feel a sense of loss that I won’t be braiding it again anytime soon, if ever.
She walks straight to me and Yolanda. “What happened.” A demand, not a question.
“I need you to take her.”
“Dani, I can’t just take Yolanda off the street.”
“You know her?” and then realize how stupid the question is. Everyone associated with this emergency room must know Yolanda. “She got beat up. I think her jaw’s broken and she’s really, really sick.” Cami stares at me, unblinking. “Cami, please.”
The automatic doors open and EMTs push two stretchers in. I recognize one of the tattooed arms under the straps. Behind the stretchers follow two cops, Lieutenant Michaels one of them.
I don’t hear what Cami is saying. I can only look at her and then lean my head at the cops behind me and then look back at her. Cami peers over my shoulder and then searches my eyes. “In here. Quick.”
We go through the security doors and Cami points to a rolling bed left in the hallway where I set Yolanda down. She curls into a ball on the thin mattress still clutching my hand. My knees go weak from the lightning shooting up my arm.
“What happened?” Cami asks as she inspects Yolanda.
“Did you do this?”
“The fuck, Cami?” I pry my hand from Yolanda and stand back. “How could you ask me that?”
“Leave him alone,” Yolanda slurs, “or I’ll fuck you up, too.”
Cami chuckles as she checks Yolanda’s pulse. “Yeah, you go, tough girl.”
“Seriously, Cami. You think because I punch a hole in the wall I’m the kind of monster who’d do this?”
Cami’s shoulders slump. “No,” she says, stroking Yolanda’s cheek. “You’re an asshole, but you’d never do this.”
“He’s stupid, too. Don’t forget that,” Yolanda says through clenched teeth.
“She’s not wrong–at least not tonight,” I say. “You okay if I leave through the loading dock? I know where it is.” I point to where I want to go and Cami grabs my hand.
“Shit, Dani. This thing’s blown up like a balloon. No chance it’s not broken. You need images. A cast. Maybe even surgery.”
I try to flex my fingers and wince. “I’ll ice it. It’ll be okay.”
Cami hesitates and then reluctantly walks me to the dock. “Thank you,” I say. We stand there, long enough for it to be awkward. I turn to leave and then quickly, before I can stop myself, lean in to kiss my sister on the cheek. A quick, stiff hug and then I’m sneaking back to my truck.
Five minutes later I’m in the restroom at the KFC on Santa Clara, inspecting myself in the mirror. My left cheek is swollen and shiny, a purple bruise just starting to bloom, and my neck is scraped red from Jessie’s chokehold. My PSP T-shirt’s torn and stained with dirt, blood, and Yolanda’s puke.
“You did this,” I say into the mirror. “Not Jessie. Not his friends. You did. And now Yolanda’s in the hospital with a busted face because of you.”
What would have happened if Bill hadn’t put me through what he did? Would I have run and gotten away? Would I have tried to fight and gotten stomped into the ground by all three of them? Would my father call me a faggot because a girl saved me?
“Fuck you, Bill,” I say at the face in the mirror, that Picassoesque blend of Mexican eyes and German nose and Indian teeth and pointed chin–the face I worry I’ll never accept because too many of the parts come from him and the parts that come from Alma were just on loan.
“Fuck you.” I pull my fist back at the mirror and stop, the throbbing in my hand reminding me that I’ve done enough damage.
It feels surprisingly good to let myself cry in that nasty KFC restroom.