coast guard festival
BY ANGELO HERNANDEZ-SIAS
Fifty-three users commented on the article covering Ernesto Reqeuña’s death. Funmama said, “tragic. so young. what a nice kid. my condolences to the requena family. if this dont change gun laws in this country i dont know what will.” TakeTheTrashOut said, “Summer is here, smell the lead in the air?” Bigjim65 said, “this is why we ought to keep niggers outta Coast Guard Festival like we used to.” Eatme666 said, “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS! prisons are overcrowded anyway.” User3246 said, “i’m so sorry.”
Occasionally Ulises wanted nothing more than to hear his younger brother’s breath stop. He would imagine this silence as he sat at the dining room table and watched his brother’s jagged fingernails meet his fork at the edge of the plate to scoop up every last grain of rice. Or as they wrestled in the kitchen, Ulises sucking air from the gaps in the wrinkles of his brother’s t-shirt, where the only smell more potent than the onions their father had on the stove was that of Ernesto’s desire for his older brother’s girlfriend, a stench Ulises might not have minded so much had he not smelled it on her too. This imagining was always accompanied by two things: one, a quiet sigh that—to Ulises’ dismay—rarely failed to deepen the dimple on Ernesto’s smiling face; two, shame. The muffled shame in knowing that you value control over your brother’s body more than you value its life.
“I shouldn’t have brought you,” Ulises said, lifting his right hand from the steering wheel and turning the volume dial back to the left.
Ernesto leaned to the console from the middle seat and twisted the knob all the way to the right. The car shook like a body about to vomit. Ulises was re-adjusting the volume dial when Nadia yelled his name, bringing his eyes to a Trump bumper sticker on the back of a truck perhaps only six feet away and his foot to the brake pedal. His brother gripped the heads of the back seats as the car stopped. Ulises sighed. The light turned and he eased into the gas pedal. The car moaned.
“Why is the Check Engine light on?” Nadia asked him after six whole minutes of silence.
Ulises looked at her. She was wearing a long black skirt with a split along its right side that exposed the brown flesh of her left leg. Sometimes he would leave his hand there as he drove, watching the moonlight soak her closed eyelids. “Why are your eyes red?”
“She was smoking with me,” said Ernesto, who had quietly put on his seatbelt since the near-crash. He was holding it now, almost as if he were eager to take it off again.
“Pink eye. I got it in Cameroon. The doctor cleared me today. I’m not contagious.” Four sentences in one breath.
Ulises searched for her eyes but could not find them. He stopped looking.
“Seriously?” she said.
He said nothing. The car’s moan drowned the sound of his younger brother’s breath. For a moment, Ulises thought he felt something like peace. Nothing could disturb this—not even a woman at the side of the road lunging in front of his moving, dying, swerving car.
When Ernesto, Ulises, and Nadia stepped out of the air-conditioned car and into vicious heat, there was a brief moment in which they wondered if they had, in fact, arrived in Grand Haven. Grand Haven, a town of 11,000 white people and 500 black; a town whose neighborhoods’ only sounds are of birds chirping, cicadas buzzing, and American flags billowing in the lake’s breeze; a town that people like Ernesto and Ulises entered for fieldwork and people like Nadia (except for Nadia, of course, who lived there) rarely entered at all. It was not the lack of breeze, however, that made them wonder if they had driven to the wrong town.
Sure, as the three of them walked toward the carnival, they encountered the usual: shirtless white boys wearing snapbacks in their jeeps, which visibly vibrated to the bassy songs of hip hop artists whose names they could not pronounce; blue-eyed children cranking their necks like dolls as Ernesto walked past, their mothers—purses clutched—slapping their hands and furtively reminding them not to stare. But as they reached the plaza at the center of the festival, where vendors sold fried sweets and teenagers held sweaty hands while strapped into rides, they encountered bodies foreign to the town. Ernesto picked his eyes up from the concrete and found himself in a crowd of men whose bare, muscular chests housed tattoos of dead kin and breathing mantras, whose balding scalps welcomed doo rags and colorful bandanas, whose pants rested just below the waist and covered the green stems which carried their torsos. Ulises let his eyes fall and noticed the sandaled toes, the oiled legs, the wide hips of the women who let Spanish, half-decipherable to him, glide like dandelion puffs from their painted lips. And Nadia, without looking, could smell the unafraid gazes of the boys who turned to stare at her exposed leg as she passed them; the aroma of their comments—too subtle for Ulises to smell—was that of bumble bees.
Security, inevitably, did not come in numbers. Two thousand black and brown bodies in downtown Grand Haven were just as out of place as five hundred. Ernesto, Ulises, and Nadia felt the warm slime of blue-eyed glares only further heating the burnt backs of their necks and noticed that not even the thick soles of Jordan’s or the heels of stilettos could keep the stem-legged bodies from walking as though the asphalt were hot enough to sear the soles of their feet. The three of them sat on a concrete ledge and stared at the sun, which sank into the hills across the waterfront like a sweating child nestling herself into bed. Nadia rinsed her fried-twinkie-filled mouth with a swig of lemonade so thick with sugar that she could feel its grains on her tongue and in her throat. Ernesto stood up, licked his sweet lips, and told Ulises that he would see him soon.
Night fell, and bodies gathered like cockroaches in the plaza. Nadia and Ulises avoided the intrusions and found a spot on the sidewalk near the waterfront to stand and watch the fireworks. On the forested dune at the far end of the lake stood a Hollywood-esque series of giant letters which read, “COAST GUARD CITY USA.” Hundreds of light bulbs traced the edges of these block letters. “There used to be a cross up there,” Nadia said, letting go of Ulises’ damp hand to point at the giant anchor just above the letters. “Last year there were protests, and they finally removed—”
A heavy hand burned through the cotton on Ulises’ shoulder. When Ulises turned around and saw that this hand belonged to a police officer, he felt his stomach turn.
“I’m sorry,” the officer said, “But we’ve got to keep this area clear for traffic flow.”
Ulises noticed the sunburn on the cop’s nose and in the bald areas where his shaved blond hair had ceased to grow. “Of course,” he said, but found that his feet were tarred to the pavement beneath him, his eyes to the officer’s black boots. Nadia, who had grown numb to this paralyzing stomach-wince, pulled Ulises by his thin bicep to the ledge at the side of the walkway. There, they sat and watched the area they had just been standing in fill up with other bodies: bearded men with round bellies and Detroit Tigers baseball caps; toothless women with dollar store flip flops and close-mouthed smiles; green-eyed toddlers who stared at Nadia and Ulises from behind the legs of their fathers or in the seats of their strollers. Nadia and Ulises waited for the officer to move these bodies aside, too. He did not.
Nadia laid her left cheek on Ulises’ burnt shoulder and pointed back up at the hill. “Do you see them, the workers?” she said over the Star Spangled Banner, which played from speakers she could not seem to pinpoint. Ulises squinted at the single light the color and shape of the moon that lay near the base of the hill, in which silhouettes of men prepared the firework fuses.
Suddenly, the fountains which sat below this circle spewed blue and red water. Bright streaks of fire flew into the starless sky, and a sound like gunshots filled the air. Ulises stuck a finger into his ear and felt something wet. He examined his fingertip in the red tint of the explosions above and asked Nadia, “Is this blood?”
As swiftly as Ulises and Nadia had avoided the wave of people rushing toward the plaza, Ernesto joined it. Like an arrow, his body found its way to the heart of the plaza, where other bodies were as compressed as moist flower petals between the pages of an old book. The dance floor, like the rest of the festival, was segregated. What joined the sweating bodies was an enormous speaker that dug into the sunburnt flesh of the right shoulder of one young man and the left shoulder of another. Ernesto let the music carry his body like a coffin in a hearse until the beads of sweat in his underarms became so numerous that he, like so many other young men in the circle, removed his shirt. His bare skin relished the musty air and despised the filed nails of the girls who felt the muscles of his abdomen. He danced with several girls, each one bending over in front of him and allowing the music to pulse through her hips while he awkwardly moved his own behind her. In the brief moments he was not dancing, he encountered mouths. Those that reeked of alcohol he pushed aside; the others he let his tongue explore.
When a sixteen-year old boy passed out on Ernesto, Ernesto tapped him on the cheek and told him to get off. When the boy’s eyes remained closed, Ernesto slapped him so hard that his own hand stung as though he had touched an electric fence and said, “Hey, man, wake the fuck up.”
The boy smiled, opened his blue eyes, and began dancing again. Too drunk to control himself, he wandered beyond his section of the dance floor and bumped into another kid, who said, “Stay off me, bro.”
“Sor-ry, Daquan” said the blue-eyed boy with a half-smile on his face that showed the chunks of elephant ear still in his teeth. Immediately, there was a clenched fist in his eye socket and he was unconscious.
Ernesto, friends with the boy who did the knocking out, howled with laughter and was among the boys who picked up the unconscious body and crowd-surfed it to the the end of the plaza, where it fell onto the cement. His laughter ended when he heard the voice of a grown man in his left ear and felt the man’s breath on the back of his neck: Get the fuck out, you filthy wetback. Ernesto turned around and saw an unshaven man of about thirty years wearing a Make-America-Great-Again baseball cap, the brim of which was three inches from his own face. Ernesto’s fist did not miss.
As the man stumbled backward and brought his fingers to his open jawbone, Ernesto felt an intense burning sensation in his chest. He moved to swing again but was held back by three girls. Before he could swing back, the man felt the paws of twenty brown cubs piercing the skin on his back, forcing his body this way and that like a metal sphere in a pinball machine. His limbs contorted and his bones bent until he found his right cheek on a curb at the edge of the plaza. By the time the man got to his feet, Ernesto was nowhere in sight.
Back at the center of the plaza, Ernesto stared at his throbbing hand and felt a squeal prying at the back of his throat. His sweating body was frozen, his unblinking eyes wet. The boy who had punched the blue-eyed kid put his hand on Ernesto’s shoulder and said, “Ain’t nothin’ gone happen to you under our watch.”
Ernesto nodded and swallowed. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out and read the message from his brother: meet me at the car. As Ernesto put his phone back in his pocket, his hand brushed his own erect penis.
Quarter-way through the show, Ulises had resorted to plugging his ears. When the last firework exploded, he sighed with relief at the thought of letting his tired eyelids fall for the night. He said goodbye to Nadia, who was to leave with her two cousins and get her car from his house the next day, and texted his brother that it was time to leave.
On his way back to the car, amidst the crowdedness of the plaza and the stench of alcohol, he heard what he thought were more fireworks but, at the sight of people running, realized were gunshots. His phone vibrated in his pocket. It was Ernesto. He picked up. “Hello?”
He heard a faint glugging noise, then nothing.
Ernesto had reached the edge of the parking lot in which his brother parked when he encountered the man he had punched in the plaza. The man had watched Ernesto since the moment the boy left the dance floor and waited until Ernesto was out of the thick of the plaza to target him. Here he was, the streetlight on the back of his baseball cap, his pistol pointed at Ernesto’s bare bird chest.
Ernesto’s feet were stuck to the cement, his hands to his sides. Any sudden movement was certain death. Any lack of movement was certain death too.
There was no conversation. The man did not give Ernesto a long, vengeful speech; Ernesto did not plea. There was no time. There was only time. Both understood what had to happen.
The man could not bring himself to do it. He knew that the brown eyes which he looked into were just as worthy of seeing as his own; the wide nostrils just as worthy of breathing; the thick lips just as worthy of speaking. He regretted having gone to his truck to grab his gun. Fear held his trembling finger on the trigger.
It is likely that he would not have pulled it on his own, that he would have put the gun down and let the boy walk in his own shit-filled shorts to his brother’s car. Yes, the man very well may have been startled into pulling the trigger by the gunshots that sounded less than a block from him, bullets from and at boy soldiers separated from each other only by varying bandana colors. Perhaps the man realized the horror of his act after he saw the thick, black blood oozing from the boy’s chest and mouth, the tears on his cheeks and chin. It is even possible that the cops misinterpreted the crime in good faith, that they truly believed the boy had merely been caught in the gang-related crossfire despite its distance from the location of the shooting and the type of bullet in his chest. Or maybe none of this is true. Maybe the man smiled as he left the boy on the sidewalk with only a moon to console him in death.
Angelo Hernandez-Sias is a writer who raps. His fiction has appeared in Scholastic’s The Best Teen Writing 2016, the Blueshift Journal, the YoungArts Miami anthologies (’15 & ’16), and elsewhere. His debut mixtape, “alon(e)so,” released under the moniker Qixote, is available everywhere. His hometown is Muskegon, Michigan, and he is currently an undergraduate student at Columbia University. His work is available at elqixote.com.
Photo credit: Kendra Stanley Mills.
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