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Authors: Luis Alberto Urrea

The Water Museum (5 page)

BOOK: The Water Museum
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Junior took his clipboard in hand and joined Chango on the lawn.

“This is it, Mr. Petrucci!” Chango emoted. Junior checked his papers and nodded wisely. Nobody even looked out of the neighboring houses. It was silent. “I can't believe we're doing this shit,” Chango muttered with a vast porcelain grin.

They tried the front door. Locked. Chango strolled around back. Some clanging and banging and, in a minute, the front door clicked and swung open.

“Electric's off. Hot as hell in here. Fridge stinks.”

The associates went inside.

*  *  *

The bank notices were on the kitchen table. Somebody had abandoned a pile of DVDs on the carpet. “Oh yeah!” Chango hooted.
The Godfather!
Llaves and Hugo hauled the table and chairs out to the truck. Plasma TV in the living room; flat screen in the bedroom. Black panties on the floor looking overwhelmingly sad to Junior. Chango put them in his pocket. “Chango's in love,” he told Junior.

In the closet, most of the clothes were gone, but a single marine uniform hung at the back. They took the TVs, a rent-to-own stereo system with about fifty-seven CDs, mostly funk and hip hop. Chango found a box of Hustlers and a Glock .40 that had fallen behind the box. For the hell of it, they took the dresser and the bunk beds from the kids' bedroom.

In the garage, there was a Toro lawn mower and, oddly, a snowblower. They took it all. As they were leaving, Chango trotted back into the house and came out with a blender under his arm.

In and out in less than three hours. They were home for a late supper. The stuff went into the garage.

*  *  *

Wednesday: three TVs, a tall iPod dock, a long couch painting, a washer and dryer, a new king-size bed still in plastic wrappers, whisky and rum, a minibike, and a set of skis.

Thursday: a navy peacoat, a mink stole (fake), six rings, another TV, another bed, a recliner chair and a matching couch in white leather, a shotgun and an ammo loading dock, a video porn collection, a framed swirl of blue tropical butterflies, golf clubs, a happening set of red cowboy boots.

Friday: aside from the usual swag—how sick were they of TV sets by now—they found an abandoned Mustang GT in the garage. Covered in dust, but sleek black. Chango wiped that baby down and Llaves hot-wired it for him and he drove back to San Diego in style.

It was a massive crime wave, and the only witnesses so far had been two kids and an ice cream man, and the ice cream man called, “Times are tough!” and Chango, into some Robin Hood hallucination, took him a thirty-two-inch flat screen and traded it for Sidewalk Sundaes for his boyz.

*  *  *

After a month of this, after dealing the goods out to fences and setting up a tent at the flea market, Chango and Junior were rolling in it. They paid their associates a fair salary, but their folding money was in fat rolls held together by rubber bands. Chango had the old repair bay in his house converted to a gym. NordicTrack, an elliptical, a Total Gym As Seen on TV, three sets of weights, and a Shake Weight that nobody wanted to touch because it looked like they were wanking when they were ripping their biceps.

“You don't make this kind of money selling dope to college girls,” Chango said.

“No,” Junior confessed. “Not lately.”

He hadn't planned on selling pot to anyone. He had hoped to teach a good Acting 101 class. Maybe write a script or some poems. And there was a gal…well. Enough of that. He wasn't going there. Then he chided himself for thinking a cliché like “going there.” No wonder he drank—it was the only way to shut his brain down. Fortunately, Chango had collected seven kinds of rum. Junior doctored his Coke Zero and lounged.

He had a cot in the corner of Chango's gas station. It was a little too close to Chango for comfort, and he had to put in his iPod buds to cancel out the old crow's snoring. But it was free, and the snacks and booze were good.

The Mustang sat out on the street. Junior kept telling Chango it would get him busted, that it was too visible. But Chango was invincible. Chango told him, “Live, peewee. Ya gotta live!” There was a tin shower rigged up in one of the restrooms. Junior's stolen iPod port was blasting “Can't You Hear Me Knocking.”

“Stones suck,” said Chango, swallowing tequila. “Except for Keith. Keith's ba-a-ad.”

Junior was thinking about the old times, how, when they'd gather at the bowling alley to play pinball, Chango would smoke those pestilential Dominos and force Junior to lose by putting the burning cherry on his knuckle every time he had to hit the bumpers.

“Fucker,” he said.

“You got that right, homes.”

“So, Chango—what's next?”

“We, um, steal a lot more shit.”

“Shouldn't we cool it for a while? Let the heat die down?”

“Heat,” Chango shrieked. “Did you actually say ‘heat'? Haw! ‘Heat,' he says. God DAMN.” And then: “What heat?” He laughed out loud. “You seen cop one? We is invisible, homie. We just the trashman.”

“I'm just being cautious,” Junior said.

“I got it covered, peewee,” Chango boasted. “Chango's got it all covered.”

“Covered how?”

“Next stop,” Chango announced, “Arizona! Don't nobody know us over there in 'Zoney!”

*  *  *

They should have never crossed the border. That's what Junior thought as he escaped. They didn't know anything about Arizona. Someone had seen them, he was pretty sure. It was probably at the motel outside of Phoenix. They'd probably been made there.

Whatever. It went bad right away. They drove around looking for abandoned houses, but in Arizona, how could you tell? All the yards were dirt, and the nice yards looked to them exactly like the bad yards. What was a weed and what was that xeriscaping desert shit?

In Casa Grande they felt like they were getting to it. A whole cul-de-sac had collected trash and a few tumbleweeds. Junior couldn't believe there were actual tumbleweeds out there. John Wayne–type stuff. They pulled in and actually rang the doorbells and got nothing. So Chango did his thing and went in the back and they were disappointed to find the first house completely vacant except for an abandoned Power Ranger action figure in the back bedroom and a melted bar of Dial in the bathroom.

The second house was full of fleas and sad, broken-ass welfare crap. Chango found a bag of lime and chili tortilla chips, and he munched these as he made his way to the third, and last, house. He went in. Score!

“I love the recession!” he shouted.

They drained the waterbed with a hose through the bathroom window. Hey—a TV. These debt monsters really liked their giant screens. Massaging recliners. Mahogany tables and a big fiberglass saguaro cactus. “Arty,” Chango said. Mirrors, clothes, a desktop computer and printer, a new microwave, two nice Dyson floor fans, a sectional couch in cowhide with brown and white color splotches. They even found a sewing machine.

It had taken too long, what with the long search and the three penetrations. After they loaded, pouring sweat except for “Mr. Petrucci,” who sat in his a.c. so he'd look good in case any rubberneckers came along, it was four in the afternoon, and they were hitting rush hour on I-10.

The truck was a mile ahead. Junior liked to hang back and make believe he was driving on holiday. No crime. He was heading cross-country, doing a Kerouac. He was going back down to National City to find La Minnie, his sweet li'l ruca from the Bay Theater days. He should have never let her go. He hadn't gone to a single high school reunion, but his homeboy El Rubio told him La Minnie had asked about him. Divorced, of course. Who in America was not divorced? But still slim and cute and fine as hell. Junior knew his life would have been different if he'd done the right thing and stayed on W. 20th and courted that gal like she deserved, but he was hungry. Trapped like a wildcat in somebody's garage, and when the door cracked the slightest bit, he was gone.

These things were on his mind when the police lights and sirens went off behind him.

*  *  *

He had to give it to Chango—he played his string out right to the end.

The cops blasted past Junior's Buick and dogged the white U-Haul. Two cars. Llaves knew better than to try to run—the truck had a governor on the engine that kept it to a maximum speed of fifty-five. He puttered along, Junior back there shouting, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” Then he hit his blinker and slowly pulled over to the shoulder, the police cars insanely flashing and yowling. The associates were climbing out when Junior went by. He could see Chango's mouth already working.

He didn't know what to do. Should he keep going? Book and not look back?

He hit the next overpass and crossed over the freeway and sped back and crossed over again and rolled up behind the cop cars. He set his tie and pulled on his jacket with its name tag and even picked up his clipboard.

There were two cops—one Anglo and one Hispanic.

The associates stood in a loose group against the side of the truck. The cops turned and stared at Junior.

“Officers,” he called. “I am Mr. Petrucci, from Bowden Federal in Detroit. Is there a problem?”

“Petrucci,” said the Hispanic. “Is that Italian?”

“It is,” said Junior.

“This dude,” Chango announced, pointing at the cop, “is some kinda Tío Taco!”

“Shut it,” the cop replied.

A Border Patrol truck pulled up behind the Buick.

“Sir?” said the cop. “I need to ask you to leave. You need to call your bank and have another team sent out to deliver these goods.”

“Fuck!” shouted Chango.

“Is there a problem with…the load?” Junior asked.

“No, sir. This is strictly a ten-seventy stop.”

“Ten-seventy?”

“SB ten-seventy. Immigration. We have reason to believe these gennermen are illegals.”

The BP agent was eyeballing Chango.

Junior almost laughed.

“Why, I never!” he said.

Chango called, “He don't know shit. Fuckin' Petrucci. He's just a bean counter. Never did a good day's work in his life! That asshole don't even know us.” He was playing to the crowd. “I worked every day! I paid my taxes! I-I-I served in Iraq!” he lied.

The cop held up two licenses in his fingers, as if he were making a tight peace sign or was about to smoke a cigarette. Llaves and Chango—Hugo didn't have a license.

“Do you have citizenship papers?” the BP man asked.

“I don't need no stinkin' papers! This is America!”

“Have they been searched?” BP asked.

“What are you, the Gestapo?” Chango smiled a little. He felt he had scored a major point. “I'm down and brown!” he hooted. “Racial profiling!” Etc.

“Not yet.”

“I ain't being searched by nobody,” Chango announced.

The BP man wagged his finger in Chango's face.

“I'll break that shit off and jam it up your ass,” Chango said. “You think some wetback would say that?”

“We ran your license,” the cop said. “Your address seems to be an abandoned gas station in San Diego.”

The cops and the BP agent smirked at each other.

“Goddamned right I live in a gas station!” Chango bellowed. “My dad owned it!”

“Uh-huh.”

The cop turned to Junior.

“I have to insist, Mr. Petrucci—you need to leave the scene. Now.”

Junior stared at Chango and got into his Buick as the cops tossed the guys against the side of the panel truck and he saw, or thought he saw, just as he pulled into traffic, the Glock fall out of Chango's pocket and the cops draw and squat, shouting, and he hit the gas and was shaking with adrenaline or fear or both and didn't know what happened but he never slowed until he was in front of the old Esso station. He was stiff and sore and scared out of his mind. He ran into Chango's bedroom and tore open his Dopp kit and took his roll of cash. He thought for a minute and went out, locked the door, and slipped into the GT. The wires sparked when he touched them and the big engine gave a deep growl and shout, the glasspacks sounding sweet. He was going to go. Going to go. Just get out. Break the ties once and for all. Never look back. He was in the wind. Junior rubbed his face three or four times. He revved the big engine and put his foot on the pedal and stared. Night. Streetlights shining through the palm trees made octopus shadows in the street. Junior rolled down the window. He could smell Burger King. Two old women walked arm in arm, speaking Spanish. He could hear a sitcom through the open window of a bungalow above Chango's station. Junior knew if he headed down toward the old Ducommun warehouse, he could find La Minnie's mom's house. It was funky twenty years ago. With its geraniums. Minnie could be there. Or her family could tell him where she was. She used to like a sweet ride like this. Maybe she'd like to feel the wind in her hair. They could drive anywhere. He thought he could talk her into it, if he could find her. The way things had changed around town, the old house might not be there at all. Probably not. Probably gone with all the things he remembered and loved. But…he asked himself…what if it wasn't?

He shifted and moved steadily into the deeper dark.

 

T
hey wore their best clothes and waited for the Old Man. Billy didn't own a suit, but he'd found a tie somewhere. He stood at the window, watching the Old Man water the garden.

His sister said, “What's he doing now?”

“Wait.”

“We're going to be late.”

“Just…wait.”

She looked at her husband in the living room and shook her head. The Old Man, Mr. Iron Fist, loved drunken Billy the most. She sighed. Well, at least Billy'd cut his hair.

“He's getting dirty,” she said.

Billy watched Pops shuffle in the dirt, mud on his brogans and dirt on his cuffs. That brown suit had to be fifty years old. But the fedora was stylin'. He smiled.

“I need a smoke,” he said. His sister didn't smoke. “Start the car. I'll fetch him.”

He stepped out of the gloom into a bright cube of light and leaves and butterflies. Good stink of fresh mud. He lit up. Pops watered his apple tree.

“Getting late, Pops,” he said.

The Old Man turned off the spigot.

“Sonny,” he said. “We planted this tree the day you were born.” He'd told this to Billy a thousand times.

Billy pulled out his handkerchief.

“You got mud on your shoes.”

Pops braced himself on his kneeling son's shoulder as Billy cleaned his feet.

“Is it terrible, Billy?” he asked.

Billy led him around to the front. Pops paused and bent to the raised carnation beds. He plucked one and sniffed it.

“Mother's favorite,” he said.

Billy tossed his smoke.

“It's not bad, Pops. Not too bad. She looks like she's asleep.”

The car was waiting.

“Is it okay?” the Old Man asked. “I drop this flower in with her?”

Billy took his elbow. His arm felt like little sticks. The sidewalk was broken up out here. Uneven.

“It's okay, Pops. I promise.”

Sis opened the door.

Pops tipped his hat to her and climbed in.

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