Authors: Thomas Sanchez
he five photographs tacked to the wall stared glossily down at Younger. He studied them carefully, closely, with full attention, committing every distinguishing feature to memory. The dark mustaches of the two men on the end, the scar straight down the middle of the forehead on the man in the center, the slightly receding hairline creeping up the broad head of the one who seemed to be the oldest of the group. But it was the face of the second man from the end that Younger kept coming back to again and again, the one who finally dominated his attention. That was him, Younger was certain of it. He was Chiquito Banana. There was an unmistakable air of authority in the man’s lean Latin face. The lips straight and strong with no trace of obvious malice, but the eyes potent, a gaze so full of life it
followed Younger around his small room from the glossy surface of the photograph. The man was handsome, in his early thirties, his thick eyebrows almost growing together, merging in a definite V above the fine slanting nose. This man had character, authority in the tight fist of his cleft chin, nobility in the arched bones of his cheeks. This man was a natural leader. Maybe the FBI didn’t know which of the five men in the photographs tacked to Younger’s wall was one of the most dangerous Latin Fascists in California, but there was no question in Younger’s mind. None. And he knew sooner or later he would meet him, or at least see him. This man who was not above hooking young kids on dope to buy their political allegiance. This man who played on every physical fear and mental anguish of the people in the Barrio. This man Younger wanted to ferret out of his rat hole. This man was the ultimate danger. Younger didn’t like why this man was the ultimate danger: the danger lay in the larger truth of his politics. Younger was a good American. Younger knew the Barrio was a dead-end trap for the thousands who came across the border to find an honest day’s wage. Why shouldn’t they come with that hope? Everyone else came to America for the same reason. Was it a crime to want to work, speak another language, demand an equal wage? Younger knew the Barrio was a giant, elaborate net, stretched across the east side of Los Angeles for one purpose: to trap cheap labor, migratory labor, labor that would stoop and pick in the hot summer fields, labor desperate and dying for a chance to work in factories, prove itself, that it could take it, take the low wages, the inhuman living conditions, the heat, the dust, seasonal work, overcrowding, the abuse. Take it and come back for more, because abuse had become in America the conditional price tag for hope. That’s why this Fascist was dangerous, because many conditions of abuse he spoke about were true. There was no denying it. Younger himself hadn’t yet figured out why people of the Barrio were denied work in many war industries. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t the American way; during a war everybody is supposed to work. If these people were asked to go and fight for America, die for
America, why couldn’t they work alongside anyone else in America? Everything seemed confusing, but in the end Younger knew there was one constant in his own life: he was a good American. He knew the system wasn’t perfect, but there wasn’t a better one to replace it with. The Fascists and the Communists all had the same corrupt bottom line—kill individualism. Younger would rather die protecting an imperfect system than live without freedom. Younger knew what was dangerous about this man, this Chiquito Banana. He had seen the Fascists’ pamphlets scattered every morning throughout the Barrio. The Fascists used small truths to mask the big lie. The whole world knew what the Fascists were. The whole world knew if America didn’t defeat Hitler it would become one big Nazi slave camp. Some things Younger was confused about, but about that he wasn’t, about that he was certain.
The phone hadn’t rung for days; no word from Cruz. Younger was afraid to leave the house in case he missed the call. He left the house only to see Kathleen. He put out the word to Wino Boy to tell the Zoot gangs he wanted Cruz to call him, to let Cruz know he went to Holly woodland, he was late, but he kept his part of the bargain, he got there. Cruz hadn’t been seen on the streets for the last week. Younger couldn’t sleep at night. If it wasn’t one thing it was another. He woke up from dreams about his brother screaming in a sea of fire. He woke up from seeing himself rip open Cruz’s shirt, his narrow hairless chest crisscrossed with fine razor-blade slashes, festering and swollen from the heroin he powdered directly into his bloodstream. These Barrio kids were too smart to jab themselves full of needle holes in the legs and arms, the first places every probation officer looked to see if a kid had a monkey on his back. Younger woke up seeing bombs fall like rain as the odd, sensitive words of the Voice rang in his ear, words enticing and cool, breathed in like pure oxygen through a gas mask. Younger couldn’t sleep worth a damn. Four o’clock in the morning and he was looking at the photographs of the faces pinned to his wall.
He tried to get his mind to relax, but who can relax when
the whole world is at war? He tried to concentrate on the perfect pitches Angel could throw for the Stars. The game of baseball followed certain rules. Lines of performance had to be upheld, but there were always the two wonderful surprises: either smash the ball straight out of the park and make all rules meaningless or throw pitches so sincere and absolutely down the middle that the game became an excuse for poetry. Games were the reality of dreams. How the game of war should be played, Younger thought as he studied the photographed faces of the men on his wall, is Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hirohito, Churchill, the whole pack of them, should get up some national baseball teams to manage, then square off against one another in the World Series of War, but with baseballs. It was four o’clock in the morning and Younger didn’t like his thoughts. They were stupid when he thought about them. But he couldn’t get any satisfaction. The only whole, solid piece of sweet dreaming he was capable of was about Kathleen. Sweet, simple dreams about her small breasts or about the white of her slender calves as she walked before him up the stairs of her apartment, and the sound of her breathing, always breathless, unnerving, like her words just arrived after a night of exhausting lovemaking, her entire body still damp, her excited fingers trembling, seeming to trace the outline of another body in the empty air as she talked. But he didn’t like to think of her feeble condition, dream of her spent body. When he did he went hard as a baseball bat between the legs, and he felt dumb and empty.
Younger sat at the small card table. For the hundredth time he picked up the V-mail letter from Marvin. A false dawn staggered down the empty street out the window over the palms, a strange and faint light coming from behind the bouldered peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains. He pulled the light cord above his head and watched the strange light through the window. He didn’t know what caused it; he had seen it before. Steadily, as the true dawn began to flood the sky, the strange light grew more distant, at the same time giving off a distinct color, like spilled red wine on a rug or blood on a sheet moments before
the stain fades. He strained his eyes in the new light that poured through the window, reading over and over the words of the letter he already knew by heart. He didn’t know why he kept rereading the letter. It depressed him, but it was the only form of contact with Marvin he had had for the past eight weeks. It depressed him that any time of the day or night Marvin’s aircraft carrier might take a direct hit and go down. Why should Marvin have to worry about Jap subs, fight a stinking war, and still be obsessed with having to defend himself against someone like the Shitter? The Shitter wasn’t such a joke anymore. The Shitter wasn’t so cavalier and swashbuckling with his stinking protest against the Navy and the war. The Shitter was some crazy guy out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean who was terrorizing Marvin. The Shitter had become so real Younger would wake up in the middle of the night, out of one bad dream or another, half expecting to see a reeking hot mound on his bed with a letter tacked to it:
Sweet Dreams, Nathan. Your Pal, The Shitter
What was more terrifying than the Shitter stalking the streets of Los Angeles was the fact that Younger thought he might be the Shitter himself. That was the silly thing about it. If the Shitter singled you out of a whole shipload of other sailors, or if he picked you out of three million lost souls in Los Angeles, weren’t you just as guilty as he? Wasn’t the target himself the reason for the revenge? Didn’t the target feel deep down inside, with not too much prodding, that he too could be driven to such an infantile act? Or, worse yet, somehow the target himself was the one who provoked the act. So in the end every victim of the Shitter thought of himself as the guilty one, the true Shitter. As Younger again read between the censored lines of Marvin’s letter, he understood his brother’s frustration. As long as the Shitter hadn’t personally struck Marvin he was still clean, guiltless; in a world full of Shitters he was still ahead of the game.
Well, another day another doughnut. Did I tell you a big movie star was on board? Henry Fonda. Oh, yah, I guess
I did. That was a couple of months ago, time goes so slow you forget what was what when, and even that you’re not sure of. You civvies think you got it bad being rationed only two pounds of meat a week, a few eggs, and half a cup of sugar. Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing worse than being a swab jockey floating around on ten million square miles of fiat blue ocean with every Jap sub and Zero in the world hunting you. I tell you, I’d rather be some island-bound gob any day than a swab jockey. At least the gobs only have to worry about getting it from the air, us out here, we get the shaft from both directions, above and below. I’m going so crazy, every time I go to the head I think I see Jap subs coming up in the toilet. I’m afraid to even look in the damn thing without seeing a periscope come up out of it. There’s no peace in this mans Navy, what with the Japs to worry about and the Shitter saying I’m next. I haven’t slept for weeks. Oh, I fake it like I am, in case the Shitter makes his move. Boy, something terrible happened last night. A guy I know, went through boot camp with him right after Pearl Harbor, just a great guy, really. He got one of the Shitters threatening notes; he was under the gun. So he camped out on his bunk like me, refusing to go to chow, even to the head. Then pow, out of nowhere, he can’t stand it anymore and goes to take a leak, then runs back and there it is, bigger than life, a whole hot brown pile of it on his bunk. What a stink! You won’t believe this, but guys talking the other night said there was a Shitter last month on one of the tubs in the Atlantic. Nobody knew who it was for months, but when they figured it out he was thrown overboard. That’s how they handle Shitters in the Atlantic. Last night a petty officer went overboard on the carrier. Now I know that happens all the time in wartime, thousand guys locked on a ship together. But this was strange. We had good weather last night, yet nobody saw him go over or heard screaming. The scuttlebutt is if there are no more hot piles then somebody got the real Shitter.
But every guy on board still suspects every other guy. Me, I’m still going to stay awake all night, I’m scared as hell.
Take care guy,
Your brother, Marvin
P.S. Don’t forget to save your Coke caps. Ten zillion make one aircraft carrier. Have you planted your V-garden yet? Vitamins for victory!
lores Street was thick with people and howling with the sounds of Friday night. Fabulous color from neon signs cracked and jumped through the air over crowded sidewalks like freak summer lightning hopping over a cornfield. Radios blared a babble of Latin and American rhythms from open windows of apartments stacked four high above small shops. Irregular lines of Zoots in baggy suits slouched against shop windows, as if laying claim to all the merchandise displayed in mountains of enticement behind them. Tidepools of teenage girls in tight black skirts and sweaters, silver crosses swinging between the golden skin of their budding breasts, swirled around corner street lamps, the strong light outlining their rouged young faces. From the middle of the block the girls appeared to Younger like flittering black
moths in the moonlight, intoxicated by their blossoming youth. As Younger passed the girls, they lowered their voices, the soft sounds of their Spanish words turning to swift whispers of anger, hissing like steam in Younger’s ears.
¡Ese! Say ¡gabacho, macho!
A gang of Zoots leaning against the Signal Gasoline Station pumps on the corner moved onto the sidewalk to block Younger. He navigated through speeding and honking cars at the intersection. The Zoots laughed, shouted and spit their words in Spanish and English from all directions at Younger. The words, more than the threatening stance of the Zoots, stopped Younger cold.
mon! Where you go, mon? You got the hot date with the
, say dude, you copped her cherry yet? You getting mushy with her cookie?”
The Zoots moved around Younger, screening out the wild laughter from their black-outfitted girlfriends beneath street lamps.
“You been making some
One of the Zoots leaned in front of Younger, the leer on his face wide as the lapels on his chartreuse sport coat. “How you face yourself in the morning time, mon? Taking the advantage on a
like her? Do you confess much to the
? Is that why you go to the confessions so much? You be telling the priest, ‘Bless me,
, for I have sinned. My poor little
has a pair of maracas no bigger than pigeon’s eggs!’”
The laughter of the Zoots came up like a net, stretched and pulled tightly over Younger’s face.
, you getting Cruz a job?”
The laughter stopped. The anger silently surrounded Younger, real and powerful. Instead of an invisible net, it was like a knife at his throat. From behind the gas pumps a tall Zoot swaggered out, the bottom of his long red coat scraping the knees of his yellow slacks, his hand coolly swinging a length of
gold watch chain looping from his vest pocket almost to the dirty sidewalk. Even in the shadow of the floppy brimmed hat Younger recognized the Zoot leader immediately. He was Venegas Delgado, cousin to six of the Zoots about to stand trial for shooting the two FBI agents. The elaborate draping of Delgado’s Zoot suit could not hide his pitifully thin body. He had the look of a starving animal. Delgado walked with the pained determination of a ninety-year-old man, not a twenty-two-year-old.
, you wanna buy a Zoot, a
?” The sneer on Delgado’s face left no doubt as to the vicious intentions in his voice. “We fix you up good. Hepcat alterations while you wait, all first-class trapos, dynamite jive
to make you look
, kool, keen, kleen, and kee-rect.” Delgado tugged at the arrowed tip of Younger’s tie. “How can you have no pride? You’re in the Barrio,
, not Westwood. You got to be tricking yourself out like a
, get yourself up in
, some pants with stuff-cuffs, reet-pleats, look like a Zoot, walk like a Zoot, talk like a Zoot. Isn’t that it,
? You want to pass, look like a
, a brother?”
The knot of Younger’s tie tightened around his neck. Behind the gas pumps another Zoot casually spun a four-pronged tire iron on the blacktop like a child’s giant jack, the iron bar wobbling and falling over with a clank.
“Wait, Delgado.” Younger tried to talk normally, as if the tie wasn’t choking him. “You were at the hearing. You heard my testimony. I said I didn’t see who shot the FBI guys. I said I never saw a Zoot with a gun in his hand.”
Delgado yanked the tie. “
! Look here you give secret testimony.”
“I’ve given other testimony, sure. But I always say the same stuff. I didn’t see your cousins, or anybody else that night, actually shoot the FBI agents.”
, you think we don’t know what you are up to in the Barrio?” Delgado jerked the tie, pulling Younger against his bony chest. “Let me tell you! We
, and want you to stay out of the Barrio. No talking to our
“I’ve still got business here, with the church, with the CYO boys.” The stiffness of a billyclub beneath Delgado’s pants zipper pressed insistently against Younger’s leg. Younger knew most of the Zoots around him had a club hidden inside a special pocket sewn into their pants legs.
, look here you don’t understand the deal.” Delgado’s fist yanked Younger’s tie so hard it cut off his breath. “
, we don’t want you here, that’s the deal, get it? It’s a straight black-and-blue deal, understand? You hang around asking more questions and we kick your keester. The
are going to beat you black and blue from top to bottom till you won’t know which end is up, till you talking from your ass and shitting from your mouth. ¿
Delgado shoved Younger away and walked back into the shadow of the gas pumps. The rest of the Zoots belligerently opened up a narrow path for Younger, making him brush against their hidden billyclubs as he continued to the next corner and crossed the street quickly, afraid to look back. By the time he walked the remaining five blocks to Kathleen’s apartment, his suit was soaked through with sweat. He rang the buzzer at her door and ran up the steps. She was way above him, at the top of the winding staircase, a candle in her hand, the flame playing around her red curls. He ran faster, afraid he wouldn’t be able to reach her before something terrifying happened. She seemed so far above him.
“Oh, Nathan, you look a wreck!”
He stood before her, panting, wanting to take hold of her fragile body, press its softness against him, protect her. He gulped at the air like a floundering fish helpless on the bottom of a boat. He caught his breath and smiled weakly. “I’m sorry to be late.”
She reached out her pale white hand, placing the coolness of her fingers affectionately on his hot cheek. “You look just a
, poor boy, come with me. Were you in an accident?”
He followed her obediently into the candlelit cavern of her
living room, sinking heavily in one of the fat chairs. “No, no accident. I just couldn’t find a cab. You know how it is, Friday night, all the sailors have liberty, impossible, really.”
Kathleen set the candle carefully on the dining table. “You mean you walked all that way?”
“Ran all that way.”
“Poor boy, you look so sad. Would you like a Coke?”
“Swell.” Younger followed Kathleen into the kitchen. She opened the icebox door and reached for two bottles of Coke, exposing on the metal rack her breathalator and the hypodermic needle next to vials of adrenalin. She uncapped the bottles and handed him one, placing the glass tip of her own to her lips, a slight brown foam from the cool liquid tracing down from the corner of her lips as she drank.
“Now.” Kathleen took Younger’s arm and led him back into the living room. “We must talk about our experiment. Did you bring the plant?”
“Yes.” Younger settled back into the fat chair across from Kathleen, pulling a bulging paper sack from his coat pocket. “It’s all here, nice and dried out.”
“Oh, good.” Kathleen pressed her knees together. “It should make a perfect tea.”
“I’m so excited, Nathan.” She placed her hands carefully around the Coke bottle like it was a prayer book. “I’ve had the most terrible asthma attack today. I had to use the breathalator again. I used up all the medicine in it. I thought I’d die. Something is getting to me in this city, just choking me up. I feel like I have water in my lungs. Like I’m underwater, drowning. Just awful, this feeling of suffocation. I can’t tell you”—she laid her cool hand on his knee—“how heavenly kind you are to come over here tonight just so I could try our witch’s tea. I’m so desperate all the time. I must try everything. When I called you earlier I was just praying you wouldn’t let me down. That you would come over and help me.”
“Maybe it’s the ragweed.”
“You mean what is causing the congestion?”
“Yes, it’s in the hills all around here, drying up and dying this time of year. Maybe the smell of it blows down into the city every day from the mountains.”
“Yes, maybe that’s it.” Kathleen leaned back wearily in the chair. “That’s why I want to leave this city, go to the Grand Canyon.”
“Why don’t you just do it? You’re going to die of asthma if you don’t.”
Kathleen pushed herself upright, a slight arc in her back beneath her thin shoulders. “Nathan, you know I couldn’t possibly do that. You know I have my mission to accomplish.”
“Yes, of course, I forgot.”
“I could never leave now. Things are going so well for my Latin Bureau, never been better.” She looked at him affectionately, like a mother promising a small boy his birthday present. “Next week the Voice is going to make an appearance here in the Barrio.”
“That soon, Nathan. He’s been promising for months. Can you believe how exciting? You’re finally going to meet him. I’ve promised that for so long. I’ve told him all about you. We don’t have too many Catholic converts, you know.” Kathleen winked mischievously, a clear animal light in her eye.
“Kathleen, I don’t believe I’m much of a catch for you. I’ve never been much of a strict Catholic.” Younger winked back. “I’m afraid you could convert me to the Hitler Youth. You’re the most persuasive woman I’ve ever met. Persuasive and,” he rolled the empty Coke bottle between his palms; all he wanted to do was reach out and touch her, “beautiful.”
Kathleen’s bright red lips shaped into a sly smile. “I’m too skinny to be beautiful, Nathan. I’ve been sick ever since I was a little girl with rheumatic fever and asthma. You can flatter me, but I know the truth of the matter. Most men want a woman who has lots of curves and dimpled cheeks, like Betty Grable or Barbara Carr.”
“I’m not most men, Kathleen.”
“No, you most certainly are not.” She rose quietly. The candlelight made her look even thinner, more refined. The flickering light traced an expression of strength on her lips, the strength of one who has accepted gracefully the absolute vulnerability of her position in the universe. “You are always so heavenly kind to me.”
“I’ll make the tea.” Younger stood up before her. Everything in his nature surrendered to her. Her slightness dominated him, holding him off; he was afraid to touch her.
“You make the tea, Nathan.” She rested a hand on her heart. “I’ll go into the bedroom and lie down for a few moments. After my attack this morning I feel like a truck has run over my chest.”
“Do you need some help?” Younger took her arm to steady her.
“No, thank you. You just make your magic witch’s tea, maybe that will be the big help I need.” She disappeared down the hall through the murky light into the bedroom.
“Swell.” Younger spoke the word aloud to himself as much as to Kathleen, who could no longer hear him. “I’ll whip up the magic brew.” He clapped his hands together in preparation and went into the kitchen, striking a match and exploding a puff of gas from the stove pilot into a high flame beneath a pan of water. He shook the dried twigs carefully out onto the table, making two little neat piles. “I don’t know whether I should put the twigs into the cups, then let them steep in water for twenty minutes, or dump all the twigs into the boiling water in the pan. What do you think?” Younger shouted over his shoulder out of the kitchen doorway. Kathleen did not answer. She either couldn’t hear him or had fallen asleep. “What I’ll do,” he mumbled to himself, scooping together the two neat piles and dumping them into the water boiling up to the top of the pan, “is just let the whole thing simmer for twenty minutes, then pour it out.” He covered the pan and turned down the heat, guarding the situation closely so the water wouldn’t become too hot and boil
out onto the stove. A yellowish steam hissed from beneath the lid of the pan, puffing like a small angry geyser, filling the room with an odd and overpowering aroma, sickly sweet, reminiscent of the last breath of ether taken anxiously in before a patient on an operating table blacks out into a swirling, heady pool and drowns. Younger bent over the brackish steam and took a deep breath; it made him cough. He turned off the flame and meticulously poured two cups of the dark, almost purplish brew, carrying them back through the dimly lit hall to Kathleen’s bedroom. He stood outside her door; it was closed. “Kathleen, would you like to come out now?” The water was so hot in the cups that the heat coming down through the china saucers began to burn his hands. “Kathleen, it’s ready. The witch’s magic tea.” She still did not answer. He knocked softly, thinking she was asleep. Not a sound came from the other side of the door. He pushed it quietly open with his foot. He had never seen the inside of her bedroom before. A bright candle on top of a dresser reflected its faltering light against a high mirror, like a torch held at the mouth of a vast cave. He pushed the door further. Next to the dark dresser the flutter of a curtain moved silently from fingers of a soft breeze prodding from the open window behind. The lacy edge of the curtain barely touched the back of a chair, not disturbing the fluffy orange ball of a curled cat, its eyes two giant rubies in the candlelight, watching Younger impassively from the chair.