I was relieving myself on some rocks among the live oak trees that lined the cliff wall above San Antonio’s Sunken Gardens when the music stopped. Only the light continuous drone of the manmade waterfall located several yards ahead of me and below remained. The water flowed down into a pool where in daylight, children tossed coins at koi, making wishes as their parents gazed in reverence at the myriad of flora and fauna that flourished in the garden. After dark, things were different. The garden was a black hole and the park was usually empty, except for occasional groups of midnight revelers that tended to stay in the well-lit areas, the parking lots.
The radio belonged to the group of guys we had just met, all Hispanic, but the tape was mine, Love at First Sting by the Scorpions. It had just been released and the concert was a week away. We’d been listening to it repeatedly since hunting down a copy earlier in anticipation of the concert. I moved back toward the lot where the cars were. Everything was probably all right, but it seemed too quiet. I hadn’t heard any cars leave, but I couldn’t hear the other group any more.
I’d been on edge since we stopped to party on the hill. The others were our age, in high school, and had made it a point to let us know they were tough, shouting and throwing their hands up aggressively when we rolled through the parking lot, but we drove back around and parked not too far away, placed our beer filled Coleman on the hood of Tom’s Buick and made peace with them. We passed a few joints and popped the tops off Budweisers, exchanging our supplies as well as valiant exploits with our new acquaintances. It was our second visit to that spot that evening. Because of that we may have felt that we belonged there.
“Carnal,” one of them said as we shook hands, not a normal white bread handshake, the freak handshake, something universal and complicated, but we all knew it. Everyone who was cool knew it.
“Carnal?” I said. I didn’t recognize the word. My Spanish consisted of a few phrases, none of which would endear me to anyone’s mother.
“Brother,” he said, with a grin that stretched over his face like tight plastic.
“Brother,” I said, as I handed him a beer. We were breaking down the social barriers, hanging with the vatos. Not that we lacked Hispanics at our school, but most of them had their own cliques, and these guys, well, they seemed rougher somehow.
Things appeared fine as I walked up. Trent was laughing his stupid laugh. It carried through the trees and echoed out into the gardens below. As I cleared the brush I could see him leaning against the car. Caden, Walsh, and Tom were there, smoking and joking, but our carnales were in their car, all except for one. Cliff was standing in front of him blocking his path, fists clenched tight as brick.
Cliff was usually pretty mellow, but I wouldn’t want to piss him off. We had been hanging out for a few years and he could take care of himself. The few scrapes we’d been in usually took place in bar parking lots after a night of drinking and skirt chasing. We had a reputation for being in the right places at the wrong times and we were cool, or at least we were convinced of it. Leather jackets, fake ID’s, our own bachelor pad and “the Beast,” a ’69 Dodge Charger with a 383 Magnum interceptor engine. It was dark green with a black top, and the headlights hidden in the grill looked positively evil when they popped up. Best of all, it screamed.
The car door opened and another one of the vatos moved toward him. Cliff turned. There was a flash of silver, high. Cliff saw it, too. He was still looking towards the cloudless sky when the blade dipped and thudded into his chest, the force of the blow picking him up. I could hear myself yelling as I ran. Steel blades flashed the night like a school of startled minnows. They sliced and diced him, one in front and one in back. I caught him before he reached the pavement, stumbling on one of his boots. I saw Caden’s beer bottle shatter amber and crimson into the driver’s face as their car screeched backwards and lurched off. The rest is a blur, a series of snapshots with Cliff in the front seat between Tom and Walsh.
I was in the backseat behind Cliff. Walsh and I tried to hold him still; his chest gurgled and spit bright bubbles as he breathed in and out. We raced for the Army hospital at Fort Sam Houston, only minutes away, Tom gripping the wheel fiercely, shrieking “I can’t see…I can’t see!” And Caden, 6’5″, long hair and all arms and legs spidering out the back window and sliding down the windshield to kick the Coleman off the hood as the Buick plummeted down Hildebrand Avenue. I remember screaming, “Run it! Run it!” along with other voices in the car as we came to the red light on the corner of Broadway and Hildebrand. Tom hesitated and slammed on the brakes at the last second, sliding through the intersection. And Walsh – wiping desperately at the dark stain on the windshield that exploded from Cliff as he lurched forward, because Tom was blinded again.
I remember the Ford Bronco we ran off the road on base, because we couldn’t find the hospital. A man who wanted to take my head off with a baseball bat because he didn’t realize we were lost. He guided us in. And the man in the white jacket who said, “We can’t touch him, you’ll have to carry him in yourselves.” I’ll never forget the footprints we left on the freshly mopped floor outside the operating room, Cliff’s screams as the rib spreader crunched into his chest so the surgeons could repair his severed aorta and left ventricle, because anesthesia can kill you when you’re drinking, or what issued from that car as it roared off, “West-side Mexicans Rule!”
My pre high school years were spent in Minot, the third largest city stuck to the frozen plains of North Dakota. The official population count was 36,000. Most of the families were white and many of them were blue collar workers. We ended up there after Dad finished graduate school. He was offered a job there as chairman of the science division at the small local college. Minot Air Force Base was just North of the city, but most of those folks kept to themselves, because there was more to do on base than in town.
North Dakota was cold, and there really were such things as prairie dogs and buffalo and smooth waving fields of summer wheat that rolled up and down like the surface of a golden ocean, just as endless and expansive. The night sky was filled with constellation after constellation as the Milky Way flowed out by the ladleful from beyond the Big Dipper and the colored lights of the aurora borealis swam and danced their way past the eerie glow of harvest moons. We were in the Magic City, so named because of its placement in a valley and the way ice particles in the air made the lights of civilization shine straight up.
If it was winter and it was nighttime, and one just happened to be driving into town, the city lights would appear suddenly, brightly, suspended in the stars.
I remember those nights as clearly as I remember my first clash with prejudice and discrimination. It started within the walls of a long two story red brick building on the corner of 16th Street and 7th Avenue, Longfellow Elementary. There was one and only one black family in town, the Porters. Dorrie Porter was in my first grade class and she was overweight with big lips and a wide flat nose, but I really hadn’t noticed until someone pointed it out to me. I suppose her family didn’t have much money, because her clothes looked like hand stitched hand-me-downs. She would often come to school without even a brown paper lunch bag, her nappy hair sloppily braided with pink plastic barrettes sticking out like spikes.
It was Dennis who began teasing her first. We called him Dennis the Menace because he was short and had blonde hair, just like the comic book character. But he wasn’t like that kid at all. He was evil. I’m not sure why I chose to hang out with him. Maybe it was because he approached me first. Maybe it was the bond that forms between two people when they band together for a cause, not necessarily a common cause.
“Hey, tell her she smells,” said Dennis, grinning up at me like a black-footed ferret that had just killed a prairie dog. He was eating like one, too. Bits of ham and wonder bread were not only visible when he spoke, but if I sat too close to him in the lunchroom, those same bits would invariably become mixed into the Dippity-do on my head, or appear later, like stucco, on an odd part of my arm.
“Why?” I asked. I didn’t know her, and I hadn’t noticed any smell.
I watched the food make slow revolutions as he masticated.
“She’s black,” he said. “They all smell. They don’t know how to take baths.” A tiny spittle missile launched from the hole in his face.
“No way. It’s not that hard to take a bath.” I eyed his Zingers, envious. Mom had packed me an apple. I didn’t even like apples.
“Some of them know how, but they just don’t like to. They’re dirty. My dad told me so.”
“Your Dad said that?”
“Why would they want to smell and be dirty? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Because they’re niggers, that’s why. Don’t you know anything?”
I felt a little embarrassed. “Want my apple?” I said, changing the subject.
“You don’t want it?”
“Nah. You can have it.” Dennis took my apple and gnawed into it. The spray was frightening. I came very close to losing interest in the Zingers, but when Dennis offered one to me, I devoured it like a Hun.
I wondered why my father had never mentioned niggers to me. Maybe he didn’t know Dorrie would be there. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to be there. Maybe I wasn’t old enough to know or he just forgot to tell me. That was it. He must have forgotten. He had to know about them, he knew everything.
In any case, when we went over to her, I didn’t smell anything unusual, but Dennis did and let her know and why. It was fun until she started crying. She just started bawling and blubbering and ran out of the lunchroom, plastic barrettes jumping around her head like neon grasshoppers. It was weird.
That evening when I asked my father what a nigger was, he made me tell him what happened. He was very angry and sent me to my room. Dad made several phone calls that night, but I’m not sure who he spoke to, or what was said. All I knew was that I was never to use that word again and if I did I would no longer be considered too old to have my ass blistered.
We didn’t see Dorrie for a week and Mrs. Swensen told everyone that the Porters were considering not allowing Dorrie back into school. She told us it was wrong to say bad things about black people. Then she told us about slavery.
When Dorrie returned we left her alone, but she didn’t make any friends. She wasn’t trying to make friends before the incident, but if she had been, none of us were quite sure about her anymore, or the whole idea of slavery. She kept to herself and blended into the coatracks and desks, as unobtrusive as a shadow.
In a Pickle on the Parkway
As I grew older, I began to spend summers in Virginia with my grandparents. My grandfather was a food broker and I spent a lot of time traveling Virginia and West Virginia with him. There were a lot of trees there and they grew naturally, not like in North Dakota, where one might see a line of blue spruce stretching for miles across the flat plains, planted to slow the death grip of below zero winds. No, these were grand happenstances of nature, stretching to heights I hadn’t seen, some with leaves large enough to wrap around my head.
Grandpa always kept a trunkful of bottles and cans, especially pickles and he always set the cruise control at just under 100 miles an hour. For some reason he thought that cruise control was automatic pilot. He would recline his seat, often steering with just the pinky finger on his right hand, or not at all when engaged in an in-depth discussion on the facts of life, an activity that seemed necessary most of the time and required wild hand gestures to accentuate action and main points.
These gesticulations were punctuated by his booming voice which crescendoed from somewhere deep inside him. The louder he talked, the more his hands danced and grabbed at the air, and the whites of his eyes grew whiter, framed by the swelling of capillaries in his cheeks and by his silver hair, slicked back carefully over his head.
He would stare me straight in the face, hands flailing, bellowing the ways of the world as the car dipped and swayed like a ferryboat moving through not so calm waters. We twisted along mountain roads where sheer drops would appear suddenly, only to be replaced by the tops of gigantic trees or outcroppings of rock.
The speedometer read 96 miles an hour when the red and blue lights appeared behind us on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Grandpa waited until the cruiser was nearly bumper to bumper, siren wailing, before he braked hard and slid the car to the shoulder.
I couldn’t make out much of what was said over the screech of the tires and the wailing, something about “sonsabitches.” The cruiser ended up sideways in front of us. Its lights were obscured by all the dust. I was scared to death because Grandpa always carried a gun on his belt, a .25 automatic. There was a snub-nosed .38 under the seat and another firearm in the glove box, all loaded, “just in case.”
Even with my fears of impending incarceration I was somewhat relieved when Grandpa rolled the window down. He had farted a few miles back, I mean really ripped one out, and had cut off the A.C. and locked the power windows. “How do you like that one, boy?” he had said. “Sweet, eh?” And he had laughed, a low guttural laugh that sounded as if it had traveled further that day than we had. “Haw, haw, haw….”
At this point I really needed that smell to go away.
The officer leaned down and grinned a wide toothy grin. “Hey J.P., how’s everything today?”
“Oh just fine, Mert. This here’s my grandson, Michael. He’s down visiting from North Dakota.”
“Hey, Michael, how do you all like Virginia?” said the teeth.
“Oh we’re having a grand old time, aren’t we boy?” Grandpa winked at me and gave me a nudge. I didn’t say anything.
“He’s ok for a peckerwood, Mert. Smart, too, just like his daddy. You know his old man runs the university up there. Say, why don’t you come around to the back and check my trunk for me. I don’t want you to think I’m running shine or anything.”
We all got out and Grandpa loaded officer Mert up with every kind of pickle imaginable. There were fancy hamburger slices, baby gherkins, fat kosher dills, sweet butter chips.
They started talking about niggers and this and that and I went and sat back down in the car. The last thing I heard was, “Next time I see you I’ll try and have some of those banana pepper pickles…mmm mmm, you’ll like those,” and “You all take care now you hear?”
We were off again, same speed.
“Why’d you run off like that, boy? Didn’t like what we were talking about?” He waited for a reply. I squinched back in the seat, trying to get comfortable. It wasn’t working.
“You’re not a pinko liberal like your daddy are you?”
I winced. “I hope not,” I said.
“Well I hope not,” he said. “That’s what’s wrong with this country…too many goddamned liberals who think niggers and spics are just like everyone else. They don’t leave well enough alone.”
I shifted again in my seat, wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else.
“Now don’t get me wrong,” he said. His voice softened slightly for a moment. “I like your daddy fine. I wouldn’t have let my daughter marry him if I didn’t. It’s just that some of these people just don’t know…” He paused.
“You can’t trust a goddamn nigger…look at this scar here.” He held out his arm and turned it so I could see. The tires drifted over the white line on my side of the car. If we went just a few feet further, it would be all over.
There was a long thin scar that ran from his wrist to about halfway to his elbow. It kind of curved and twisted around like a water moccasin to get from one end to the other.
“How did you get that Grandpa?”
“Goddamn nigger did it for no reason. Cut me up with a big old knife, about this long. He took his hands off the wheel and held them about a foot and a half apart. I tried to ignore the way the car jerked.
“Well, I was working as a foreman down to Charlottesville a long time ago and a truck came in with a load of carpet. I told this one big old nigger there to unload it and got myself a chair so I could stick close by the truck because those niggers are so lazy, if you don’t keep an eye on them they won’t do a lick of work, rob you blind, too, if you let them. Anyway I had just dozed off and that big sonofabitch rolled one of those rolls of carpet out and hit me on the head with it. Sonofabitch damn near killed me.”
I did my best to keep my eyes on him and not the road. Grandpa didn’t like it if he thought you weren’t paying attention to him.
“Did he do it on purpose Grandpa?”
Grandpa’s eyes widened like a pair of deviled eggs that had been in the sun far too long. “Goddamn right he did! What did you think boy? I told you he was a nigger.” He gave me the best part of a withering sneer, then leaned slowly back into the seat with one finger on the wheel and one hand madly waving details of the exploit.
“Anyway, when I got up into the truck he pulled a knife on me. I was lucky I had my gun on me…you know that little .25 I’ve got right here?” He slapped the worn leather pouch on his belt with the hand he had been driving with. The car swerved.
“When he started coming at me with that knife I just grabbed ahold of him and managed to get my gun out.”
My eyes were wide. “Did you shoot him Grandpa?”
“Damn right I shot that sonofabitch.”
“What happened? Did you kill him?”
“Hell no, that goddamned nigger was too big to kill. I emptied that gun into his gut and watched the bullets rip out his back.”
“You saw the bullets come out?!”
“Oh God yes and there was blood everywhere, it was a godawful mess, you should have seen it, but he was still alive when they hauled his black ass off to jail.”
“They put him in jail after you shot him?”
“Hell yes they did, boy. Don’t you know anything? I told you he was a nigger. Goddamn boy, I’m going to have to have a talk with your old man. Don’t they have any of those black assholes up there in that little town you live in?”
“No,” I lied.
“Well that really is something.” He seemed to be calming down. “No wonder…what about spics? You got any of them up there?”
“Spics?” I asked.
“You know, spics…greasy brown skinned melon pickers….” I looked at him blankly. “Mexicans,” he said. “You mean to tell me there’s no Mexicans up there either?”
“Oh, Mexicans,” I said. “No, we don’t have any of those; I think it’s too cold for them. Are they pretty bad?”
“Bad? They’re worse than niggers! You can’t trust those spic bastards, don’t ever turn your back on one of them.”
The ball in my stomach had loosened its grip a bit, but now there was a grumbling noise emanating from under my shirt.
“I’m getting hungry, Grandpa. Is it Time for lunch yet?”
“We’ll stop here pretty soon. There’s a place I want to take you, best chili dogs in the state.”
The car had smoothed out, droning and swaying almost peacefully, the side of the road blurring and running together in splotches of green and brown and gray.
“So there’s no niggers or spics at all where you come from?”
“No Grandpa.” I watched the splotches blend into one long line.
“Well that’s something,” he said. “Maybe your father does know what he’s doing.”
I thought about going home in a few weeks. It would still be warm in Minot and Raul would want to play football. We didn’t really play, we just passed the ball around and ran a lot, but it was fun. His sister Carmen would watch and afterwards, she might invite us in for lemonade.
“Maybe so,” I said.