BY VINCENT CHAVEZ
You know you’re supposed to be mad when this broken down, rusted over Buick Roadmaster cuts in front of the three of you. You know you’re supposed to be really mad when Frank slams down on his horn and Vic calls out, “You see this sonuvabitch?” You’d been squished between your two big brothers for the past thirty minutes, sitting in Frank’s blue Ford with his fishing boat in tow, waiting in line to pass through the gate leading to the Lake Castaic marina. It was like everybody and their mothers had gone out to go fishing that morning. And there the three of you were, just a bumper away from the gate, a bumper away from casting your poles, from sinking your lures into the water. But then this “cocksucker,” as Frank put it, pulls up right in front of you.
“Told you not to be sitting in park,” Vic says. Frank hadn’t even gotten his hand on the stick by the time the cutters had shot right past the three of you, and the boat they’d been towing swerved in front of Frank’s bumper.
“Cállate, cabrón,” Frank says.
“Yeah, shut up,” you say to Vic too, and then he smacks you upside the head.
Frank slams his fist down on his horn again and lets it blare out for five whole seconds. The driver rolls his window down. An arm comes out and sticks a middle finger up towards the sky. “Pinche chúntaros,” Frank mutters.
It isn’t the first time you’ve heard your brother say this word. Your brother is a foreman. It’s what he calls fieldworkers. Some of the Mexicans who work underneath him. The pickers and plasterers who sit by themselves and get drunk at Las Piedras Park after work a couple blocks from your neighborhood. The ones who come into the pool hall with cologne smelling like vinegar in groups of five or six. Fucking mariachis, Frank says everytime he sees them. Goddamn nationals. Paisas. One time, on the way back from the grocery store and past the park, you asked Frank why he didn’t call them wetbacks. Why he didn’t call them beaners or spics, like how a few of the fifth grader white boys would call you and your friends at school. Who the hell is calling you that? he’d said. You never did get an answer from him. Were told to go handle your business with the gabachos. Don’t let anyone ever call you that, he’d said. Ever.
Both Frank and Vic are sitting next to you, looking pissed, so you figure you ought to say something. Vic always says you got a big mouth, but you don’t care. Both of your brothers are almost ten years older than you. And even when you do talk, they hardly listen anyways. “Well, it’s not like they’re moving,” you say. “Dumb paisas still gotta wait in line to launch their boat too.”
You look over at Frank to see if you’d said the right thing. Frank stays quiet, so Vic seizes his opportunity. “Did somebody pull your string?” he says.
You keep looking at Frank all desperate, but he’s still mean mugging the Buick, looking at it like he’s about to chew off his whole bottom lip. For Vic, it’s the signal to keep going. Frank’s silence always is.
“Frank, you hear this kid?” he says. “Sounds like to me he thinks it’s alright if we just start letting people cut in front of us.”
“I didn’t say that,” you say. “And don’t you start calling me kid.”
“I’ll call you whatever I want,” Vic says. “You know, Eddie, according to your logic, it sounds like you want Frank here to pull us off to the side of the road? To start letting everyone go past us? I mean, we’ve already been sitting here for over half an hour. What’s another thirty, right?”
“That’s not what I was saying!”
“I figure that’s what I heard.”
“Enough!” Frank shouts, “What’s wrong with the both of you?” He gives a death stare to
Vic. “What are you, nine?”
“Go to hell,” Vic says. You’re mouthing off at him when he points at the Buick. “So what are we gonna do about this?”
“I say we slash their tires,” you butt in again, knowing Frank won’t take Vic that seriously. You picture pulling out the big Bowie knife Frank keeps in his glove compartment and running it through the Buick’s cracked whitewall wheels. The hiss that’d spill out from the tires as Frank did the same on the opposite side of the car. “Like how you did that one time with those crazy rednecks. Remember, Frank?”
Your brother ignores you. He buries his face into his palms for a few seconds and then takes a long hard look at the Buick. “Both of you, stay here,” he says. And then he steps out of the cab.
“Hey! Where are you going?” I cry out, but it’s already too late. Frank doesn’t look back. He never looks back. He marches over to the Buick.
“See what you do?” Vic says as he opens up his door.
“Me?” I say. “They’re the ones who cut in front of us!”
Vic takes a deep breath before stepping out from the truck. It’s always all show with him. Sure, you’ve seen him get forced into breaking up a couple of Frank’s fights. Get convinced by his buddies to sneak out of your guys’ bedroom at night to go key up the cars of the white folks who’d thrown rocks at them before their high school football games. The way he always hesitates though in the moment tells you he’s never ready to just go in and throw a couple chingasos. Up ahead, Frank has got his hands on his belt buckle. He’s saying something to the still seated driver, and you wonder why Vic still hasn’t left the truck yet. You think he’s a coward. In fact, you know he is. You try to crawl over to the driver’s side door to let yourself out from the Ford, but Vic spots you. “Don’t you dare open that,” he says.
“Why not?” you say. “I wanna help.”
“And do what, exactly?” Vic says. “Just wait here.”
Tears well up in your eyes as he slams his door in your face. The cars lined up behind you are honking like crazy. Vic throws his hands up. Yells at them to give him a break. As he jogs over, the Buick driver swings his door open and almost clips Frank. Frank holds his ground even though the driver is three times his size. They start shouting at each other in Spanish, and you damn near bump your head on the top of the Ford’s cabin as you anticipate the two of them coming to blows. They don’t, but when Vic runs up, he still separates them. An old lady steps out from the Buick as he does so, and she looks like your grandma. She’s just as good at yelling at your brothers too. Keeps saying in Spanish for Vic to keep his dirty hands off her son. From the back of the Buick, you notice four pairs of eyes watching you. They’re kids’ eyes. Just like yours.
It isn’t long before a white man in a tie comes over from the marina and breaks it all up. His face turns purple as he jabs his finger at each of them. You people, he calls them one time. Two times. You count on your fingers–three, then four, then five. He barks at them to get back in their cars. That he ought to kick all of them out. For a split second, you reckon your brothers and the paisas should team up. The way the white man yells at them makes you think they might. It surprises you how quick it takes to hate him more than anything.
Nobody says anything to the white man though. And none of them shake hands by the time they’re all told to split. Frank mutters something underneath his breath at the paisas, and as soon as him and Vic turn their backs on them, the old lady shakes her head and spits in their direction. She says something to the driver once she’s back in the Buick, and they both laugh. She eyes your brothers as they walk back to the Ford and the driver keeps laughing. Like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever said.
You’ve seen this before. Had seen it in the faces of the white boys every time you and your friends confronted them. There’s nothing to be done about it, Eddie, your friends said before the last time you walked up on the white boys during recess. You were going to go in solo. Your friends had been being pussies. What’s wrong with you, man? They’re bigger than you. Just let it go already!
You couldn’t though. Not anymore anyway. Every lunch after they’d fucked with you guys it was always the same, talking about coulda, shoulda, woulda. You’d never heard Frank talk about what he would’ve done. You’d never heard him talk about what he would’ve said after somebody had crossed him, your folks, or your brothers. That’s how Frank was–he did what he meant, and he meant what he said. You wanted to be like that. It was like he was never afraid to do what he had to do. Even when everybody was watching.
You were afraid when you went to go face off with the white boys. But you always remembered how they stared at you when you walked up to them. How surprised they all ended up looking a few seconds after they’d turned their backs on you. They’d been playing football on their part of the playground at the time. Meanwhile, your friends had been watching it all go down from the safety of the monkey bars. You wondered if they could see how good it felt to slip into one of the white boys’ huddles and steal their football from them. You wondered if they could hear how powerful it made you feel every time you shouted at the white boys, every time you puffed your chest out and told them they were nothing but a bunch of stupid gabachos. It took five seconds for you to get run down. Five seconds for you to get dragged into a patch of mud, to get kicked and socked, for them all to laugh at you. Your friends only came to help you after the recess bell had rung and the white boys had run off. They scooped you from the mud and kept saying how badass you were, even though they thought you died and looked like fucking roadkill. You walked home with them that day with a bruise on your stomach in the shape of a shoe. The way they kept going on about the whole thing though told you that moment would live forever.
When your brothers are back in the Ford, Frank lights himself a cigarette. Vic doesn’t say nothing. Just stares out the window.
“We’re not gonna let them get away with this?” you say to Frank. He keeps smoking. Closes his eyes and blows a few puffs out from his window. “Are we?”
“Drop it, Eddie,” Vic says. “It’s over.”
Knowing Frank, it isn’t. It can’t be. “Frank?” you say again. All you want is to be part of the plan.
Frank puts his Ford in drive and the truck rolls forward a few feet. “Just be ready,” he says to you.
You catch Vic staring at him for a few seconds. Frank does too. It’s a rare sight–Vic questioning him. “You got something on your mind?” Frank says.
Vic swallows. “Nothing,” he says. “I mean, just that we don’t got to pull anything here.”
Frank looks down at you for a second. Not really into your eyes. His face is sort of blank as he looks at you over your head. He peers back up at the Buick. “What do you want from me,
Vic?” he says, with eyes dead set ahead.
Vic sinks into his chair a little bit more. “I want to fish,” he says. “That’s it.”
Frank presses his foot down on the gas one more time. Glances up in the rearview mirror.
“Alright,” he says. “Get your fucking pole out from the back of my truck and go fish then.”
Vic doesn’t end up ever leaving the truck. All three of you sit in silence for the next ten minutes it takes to pass through the gate. The Buick drives up to the marina and parks it behind some
Asian people who are struggling to load up their boat from the ramp they’re backing up on. The Buick driver gets out to go help. It surprises you when Frank rolls past the marina, and finds a spot not too far away behind a bunch of shore casters.
“Eddie,” Frank says to you as he steps out from the truck. Vic hops out on his side. The two of them don’t even look at each other. “C’mon out back,” he says. “I want to show you something.”
You slide out from the truck behind Vic. You’re about to run around back, but Vic pulls you on your shoulder. “Hey!” you cry out.
Your brother releases you, but you don’t move. It’s the way he’s staring at you. He checks to see if Frank is looking.
“What?” you say. “I gotta go.”
You don’t know why it’s so hard for him. He’s only two years younger than Frank. And yet, he’s taller. Stronger. Sometimes, you think it’s a waste. It only comes out from time to time. The flashes of violence. Your brother could flatten anybody if he wanted to. You’ve seen him do it every Friday night for the past three years. He’s a defensive tackle. Has been on varsity ever since he was a freshman. People chant his name for him to squash his opponents. They roar when he stands over them. Every once in a while, you think about asking him about it. When it’s real late at night after one of his football games, and it’s quiet as hell in your guys’ bedroom. Why do you pick them up after you hit them? you’d say. You don’t got to. Vic shakes his head after you take too long to say anything. “Whatever,” he says. “Just don’t come crying to me when you fuck up in front of him.”
Your brother doesn’t say anything else. A pressure mounts in the center of your chest as he motions at you to scram. “Get out of here,” he says. “He’s waiting for you.”
You leave him and walk around past the truck’s hitch to the back of the boat. Frank is kneeling down with a wrench in his hand as he unscrews something from the bottom of the boat.
“There you are. See this here?” he says once he’s done. He holds something shiny up to you. “This is what you call a drain plug. I want you to go unscrew the one in those folks’ boat.”
He drops the brass colored thing in your hands then. It’s heavier than you expect. It rolls out of your palm and plummets down into the dirt. “What happens after I do that?” you say, scrambling to pick it up.
Frank takes one last drag from his cigarette and stamps it out with his boot. He stares at you as you dust the plug off with the hem of your shirt. “They sink,” he says.
You wonder how much water the boat could take on before the paisas would realize what was happening. Frank takes the drain plug from you and screws it back into his boat. The pressure in your chest sinks down into your stomach then. Everything feels like it’s happening too quickly.
“There’s not much to it,” Frank says. “You just have to see if it’s on the inside or outside of their boat. From there, it’s easy.” Once he’s done, he hands you the wrench. “I’m going to go talk to them right before they launch. Make them apologize for what they did. It wasn’t right what they did back there. See those trees behind you, Eddie?”
You just nod. You slip the wrench in the back pocket of your jeans and turn around. Encircling the lake on a slope all the way to the marina are the ancient oaks you play hide-and-seek in whenever all the cousins come out fishing and the ones your age get bored. “Yes,” you say.
“You’re going to sneak through them once I start talking to them. That’s how you’re going to get behind them. You unscrew that thing as fast as you can, you hear me? And then you’re going to run like hell through those woods back here. Understand?”
“Yeah,” you say, looking up at him.
Frank stares down at you for a few seconds. He sparks up another cigarette and squints over towards the marina. The water over there is almost blinding in the rising sun. The Asian people the paisa driver was helping had just finished loading up their boat. The Buick is next.
“Right,” he says. He runs his fingers through your hair. “Go on then.”
It feels like cinder blocks are attached to your legs as you run up towards the oaks. When you get to the treeline, you look back and see Frank making his way over to the paisas. Your heart races as you weave through the trees. You sprint as fast as you can over crumbling rock and a series of rolling hills to reach the part of the thicket closest to the marina. It’s higher up than everything else at the lake. There’s a dropoff a few feet from the treeline, and when you peek over, all you see is a landslide and tree roots poking out from underneath your little cliff. You pat the back of your jeans to make sure the wrench didn’t fall out. It’s still there. The back of your head pounds as you watch Frank walk up to the paisas. The old lady is behind the wheel of the Buick. The driver is out, helping her back their boat down the marina ramp. The kids are out too, but two of them are missing.
“Whatcha looking at?” a high-pitched voice suddenly rings out.
You look over your shoulder, and see them, staring at you. The older one is missing one of his front teeth and is wearing a pair of patched up overalls. The younger one’s got her hair up in pigtails. You can see her diaper poking out from underneath her dress. They’re holding hands. “Nothing,” you say.
The boy tugs on his sister’s hand. She follows him as he walks over to you. “You were in that truck behind us,” he says as he leans on the oak beside you.
“We weren’t behind you,” you snap. It surprises you how the words just fell out of your mouth. “You cut in front of us.”
What you said doesn’t seem to phase the boy. He looks down towards Frank and the rest of his family. Frank and them are starting to get back into it. “Papá and Abuela always fight with people,” he says.
“Chris, I’m hungry,” the girl says.
“Shut up, Sofia,” he says to her.
They don’t really say anything else. You look around the marina for the white man in the tie. He’s nowhere to be seen. Frank looks up over in your direction for a second or two. Or at least, you think he does.
“Don’t follow me,” you say.
“Follow you where?” Chris says.
And then you make a break for it.
As you slide down the hill from the oaks, you look to see if the little kids are chasing after you. They aren’t, but keep watching from up where you left them. Once you’re by their boat, all you can hear is Chris and Sofia’s abuela cussing Frank out in Spanish. Everybody’s backs are on you, except Frank’s. He keeps his eyes on them, looking stone-faced, even though you know he’d seen you.
Your heart feels like it’s gonna explode as you look for the drain plug on the outside of the boat. The shale underneath your feet crunches with every step you take as you search. The longer it takes you, the more you start to question if you even remember what the plug is supposed to look like. You wonder if their boat even has a drain plug–if it’s a special kind of boat, or if the paisas just forgot to bring their plug with them.
Eventually, you find a hole where water would drain. It doesn’t take long to realize though that the plug, if it’s even around, has to be on the inside of the boat. You pull the wrench out from your jeans and peek up over the boat before making the move to reach over inside of it. As you do, Chris and Sofia’s abuela turns around from Frank and starts rubbing her eyes. The wrench slips from your hand and hits the bottom of the boat with a loud clunk. You freeze, with half your upper body completely exposed. Frank cracks a little bit then, but nobody else reacts or looks. He tells the old lady not to turn her back on him, and she quickly snaps back. You look into the boat, and see the wrench resting next to the drain plug. You unscrew the thing with a few twists, pocket it, and scramble back up the cliff to the little kids.
“You sure are in a hurry,” Chris says as you stop yourself on one of the oaks and slide down into the dirt. Sofia is sitting with her back up on the tree next to you and is chewing on a piece of jerky. “Was there something wrong with our boat?” he goes on, peering down at you. “I saw you messing around with it.” You just shake your head at him and try to catch your breath.
“Well, looks like they’re through now,” Chris says once Frank starts making his way back towards Vic and the Ford. His abuela is still standing where she was and has got her arms crossed. His papá tries to get her to move, but she waves him off as she watches Frank walk away. You pat the dust off yourself as you get back up to your feet.
“So you’re going fishing today too?” Chris says.
You turn back towards him. He looks like he’s ready to have a whole conversation with you. “Yeah,” you say.
His face lights up then. “Papá said we’re gonna catch the biggest fish in the whole lake today. Told us it was gonna be a big ol’ bass. That we could eat it too. That’s what he said, right, Sofia?”
Sofia doesn’t say anything. You picture for a second what it might be like when they get in their boat. She isn’t even potty trained.
“I gotta go,” you say.
“Guess we’ll be seeing you then,” Chris says.
“Yup,” you say.
Frank is pulling the fishing poles out from the bed of the Ford by the time you make it back.
“You almost blew it back there,” he says. “You still got that plug?”
You pull it out from your jeans and hand it to him. He stuffs it into one of the pockets of his flannel.
“We’re going to start out on the shore,” he says as he gives you your pole. “Vic is already out there down a ways. We’ll go join him.”
Frank slams the trunk of his bed shut and takes one last look over towards the marina.
You see Sofia running after Chris as he sprints down the hill towards the rest of his family. Their boat is in the water and their papá starts passing out life jackets. They only got enough for three of the kids.
“What’s the matter with you?” Frank says as he turns away from them.
You keep watching. Grind your teeth as Chris and Sofia hop in. Their abuela puts Sofia in her lap and one of the older boys gives Chris his life jacket. Their papá powers on the boat’s motor and they head out onto the lake.
“Eddie,” Frank barks. You look up at him. “You wanted this, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” you say.
“Alright,” he says. “Let’s go then.”