By George B. Sanchez-Tello
Raygun ambles up the hill. The walk from the bus stop takes about twenty minutes, but the hill is steep, rising more than five hundred feet above the valley floor – dwarfing the distant city hall tower.
Shade is sparse on this side of the 10. The sun’s rays bake the blacktop road and grey concrete freeway below, in turn radiating pedestrians – human and animal alike.
If you could, you took cover. Usually you can’t.
Raygun passes the new condos that open their front doors onto City Terrace Drive, but only for those with the money to pay an absurd amount for lungs full of exhaust. Further ascending, he advances to the small homes, stacked one upon another, often with small yards long since encased in concrete. Like a pilgrim making good on a manda, Raygun encounters a front yard altar to La Virgen, dedicated to the memory of the home’s inhabitants – the Sánchez family. Her portrait in the appearance at El Tepeyac is set within an alcove facing the street. A familiar image – green robe, Mexica flowers, astronomical inlay, red cloak, light skin and down turned eyes. Standing atop the moon and radiating tongue-like flares, she floats in a magenta space that envelopes the outer walls of the home.
At La Virgen’s feet sit a pair of votive candles twelve inches tall, wicks still burning. The candles guard a small, terracotta vase bursting with freshly cut roses – white, pink and red; offerings from the home garden. A string of Christmas lights hang within the alcove.
Raygun goes his way. The sun is high overhead. Though his slacks are not baggy nor sagging, the thread is caught between heel and road. The incline chews at the hem, slowly undoing the stitch likely perforated by a brown fingered woman in a place faraway, but not unlike here.
As he turns the first corner, Cheeckies runs to the edge of the chain link fence to greet Raygun. A low, loud bark punctuated with short bursts of growling, snout pressed to the fence. Raygun pays little attention as he marches, offering an automated “Hey cheeckies” to acknowledge her.
Cheeckies barking sets off the other dogs. As if a wave in the bleachers at Chavez Ravine, one by one ascending the hill, dogs stir to life, barking blindly into the open sky or perhaps sounding a communal alarm of a visitor, intruder or member. Never fails.
Every time, Raygun smiles slightly to himself: life in this noisy neighborhood.
The road snakes back and forth up the hill. It would be called a switch back if this path was tucked into the nearby San Gabriels. Since the wild has since been encased in concrete, this wilderness is not given its proper.
Too early for those working 9 to 5 or even 8 to 4, the 7 to 3 crowd is starting to make their way up the hill. A handful walk, like Raygun. Despite limited options, many drive. The variety of cars reveals that all incomes up here are not the same. Fords held together with string and bubble gum, Chevy BelAir’s in immaculate condition, worked with pride and commitment to look and run better than the day it came off the factory line nearly a century past, mini-vans shining fresh from a wash, driveway bound BMWs bought for a good price off a friend of a friend now collecting dust by the pound, café racers and every variety of pickup imaginable. The placement of one alongside another might surprise someone from somewhere else, but here, it fits. Where the bananas fruit alongside blooming nopales and roses open themselves to the maguey: there is place for everything here. This is but one reflection.
Braided with the bark of dogs, the other sound of greeting on the hill: the echo of children playing in circles and cul-de-sacs that dot Lomita’s pinnacle. The closer Raygun gets to the top, the closer to the source of screams and shouts in English and Spanish. Non-verbal roars of joy, pleasure, excitement, laughter, sing-song giggles and the familiar slapping of rubber sole sneakers over asphalt. A basketball rolls down the hill from a game beyond Raygun’s sight. The orange rubber and black detail do not guarantee an actual basketball game, but it is certainly part of a game. Raygun watches the ball roll at him and acts. Not like anyone would come down to fetch it. A ball lost to the hill was that – a ball lost. Maybe a sacrifice or a gift, but nonetheless a ball lost.
With the basketball cradled in his arms, Raygun continues his ascent. Behind, the freeway buzzes as usual. Except at such heights, the sound mimicks a volley of waves upon an abandoned beach. There is a rhythm to the chaos of the freeway. So much automation at once – gears shifting, the wearing of tires on concrete, the sound of various sized automobiles – semis, compacts, motorcycles – all racing along an east/west axis that slightly dips north and south at various points, curving to follow a path carved into the earth long before the concept of a freeway. Beneath those ten lanes lay bones. Each bone embedded with history. Stories forever embedded between the roots of Lomita and modern methods to get somewhere faster.
But Raygun takes his time. Years of walking taught him to take the hill at the speed his body allows. Moving fast only guarantees weariness and an asthma attack. It is safer to take Lomita easy and listen. Lomita will catch you off guard if you’re not present – a loose pitbull, errant basketball or a resident racing down a path devoid of street lights and stop signs. Taking the hill slow allows him to review the art hidden in plain view.
Near the summit, there is a small mural, painted on a wall of cinderblock. No more than three feet tall, the paint is peeling in patches, like the remnants of a sunburn. Simple strokes forever committ bright green stalks of corn to the cinder block. Yellow and blue fruit peek through green husks. At center is a portrait: framed by shoulders, black military fatigues, a black balaclava and a green, short brimmed army cap. Brown eyes buried within the mask. The gender of the soldier is indeterminable. Raygun was once told that was the point. In deep maroon colors, the painting had its own title: Viva Los Zapatistas!.
Gaining on the summit: the punks. Lounging in the shade of a fig tree in an empty lot, a half dozen or so teenagers dressed alike: tight black jeans, ripped at one knee and the other pant leg decorated with black and white silk screen patches of bands who formed, performed, broke up and reunited long before any of the punks were born. The punks protect their upper torso with leather jackets painted with white grease pens and punctured with silver spikes and studs. Underneath, faded black t-shirts advertising the same bands memorialized on their patches.
The lot they had descended on had once been the site of another attempt to carve a home out of the hillside. Contractors had long abandoned the project, but not without erecting retaining walls. The walls had become a canvas. Adie needed somewhere to test her stencils. Intricate replicas of goddesses attempted in heavy cardstock, a human body with two serpents in the place of a head – breasts heavy and swollen. Nearby body parts – feet, thighs, arms, hands and torso – stenciled onto the wall as if scattered by slaughter along the edges of the retaining wall. Raygun knows the stories, though struggles to pronounce the names. Besides, it isn’t the stories that interest him; it is the technique and what he might learn from Adie.
Sometimes, the punks slow down to admire the work nearby. Not today. Raygun has known them all since they were children – running around like he did, up here. A few nod hello as he passes. Hands raise, palms slap and closed fists pump – a ritual of greeting. Two punks carry instruments with no case – a bass guitar and an electric guitar – Slung low over leathered shoulders Raygun recognizes the chords and melody of an anti-government anthem born on the East Coast in a hardcore scene that looks nothing like this gathering of punks on a hilltop above Los Angeles. Raygun goes his way.
At the summit, Raygun is greeted again, though different than the fist pumps and nods.
“Hey, that’s our ball,” yells a little girl running to Raygun. Dressed like the rest of her gang: maroon polo shirts and khaki short pants, he recognized her outfit as a uniform. Not a Catholic school – a charter school. In fact, it is the charter school that now occupies the catholic elementary school he once called his.
“Your ball, eh,” Raygun laughs, drawing the ball closer to his chest before ultimately offering it to the young girl. “I found it rolling down the hill. I thought it belonged to someone else.”
She stops inches before him and looks up.
“Yeah, I know. Stupid Juan dropped it. We were afraid we’d lost another one,” she says as he hands the ball over. Both smile.
The game of – whatever it is – roars back to life with laughter, shrieks and cheers.
Overheard, something larger groans. The kids, inoculated to the roar, don’t even look up to see the jet lowering out of the clouds. Neither does Raygun, though the glint of sun off the silver fuselage reveals the bank right and arch over the hills nearby. Just within the vista under the brim of his fitted blue baseball hat, he wonders the same thing he always wonders at the site of a plane above Lomita: What does it look like from up there? Do the passengers know what neighborhood they are above? Do they pilots announce the approach of Lomita?
Of course they don’t. Someday they will.
Sometimes the roar of jet engines combined with wind gusts are deceiving – like a crash, or more accurately, a collision, is eminent. Of course no NTA investigator would see it, but Lomita is a force too.
Raygun rounds the corner. It was the guys: Old faces, young faces, distance faces and innocent faces. Louder than the punks, but not as loud as the kids.
“Hey, what’s up Raygun,” yells Pelon, his brown eyes warm to the sight of a neighborhood friend. Like the punks, the guys nod – nod with a full neck to skull raise of the chin, or simply a raised eye brow. Like the punks, hands were raised, palms slapped and fists pumped.
The guys have a reputation. Each has a nickname, like Shorty, Spider, Flaco, Gordo and Jokies. There are other names for them as well, depending on who is asking. Like Lomita, the guys belong to something that existed long before any of them and something that would exist long after. There were stories about the guys. Each tale anchored by a truth and adorned with poetry, exaggeration, violence – the boldest bloom into legend. It is difficult to separate the elements. Other than the scholars, reporters and cops, no one cared to. Like Lomita, it is.
The road evens. Raygun no longer walks an incline. The road widens. In some spots two cars are able to pass one another. From underneath his brim, Raygun spies the neighborhood. Small adobe casitas surrounded by hard clay and earth; two story remodels with hardened orange tile roofs, soft green grass that necessitates water daily; single story homes erected sometime in the chasm between adobe and modern, sharp angles. Small apartments converted out of garages, just like his.
Raygun passes an undeveloped lot to his right. The lot is wide, slightly sloping down from the road and running into the hillside and retaining wall. In the middle stands a walnut tree, its fruit-bearing branches trimmed about six feet above the clay floor, creating a sort of cover for old Antonio, who sleeps there nearly every night. The black couch Antonio dragged to the base of the tree serves as both bench and bed.
By the time Raygun reaches the block, the veteranos had assumed their circle. Standing at the edge of a driveway, near a mail box, they had long since popped the tops off their first post-work beers. Just like Raygun and the guys, the veteranos grew up in the neighborhood. They had seen the changes over the decades: from a mixed neighborhood with Japanese and Jewish neighbors to a Mexican-American neighborhood in the 1950s, a Chicano neighborhood in the 1960s and early 70s, the darkness of the 1980s and the present, fragile calm. If everyone had the veteranos in their neighborhood, there would be no need for Chicano Studies classes. All you’d need is to listen to their memories every afternoon. Of course, you’d have to run it by their wives too – to sort it all out.
Today their mood is a bit somber.
“Hey guys,” calls Raygun as he approaches the group.
They all nod and greet the young man.
“Hey, hey, I saw the piece you helped restore down the hill,” says Gaspar. “Let me tell you – I remember when those murals first went up. It was the first time I’d seen La cultura turned into art. I used to watch them everyday as I came home from school. Two guys standing by themselves atop the scaffolding, day in and day out, bringing to life people that we only heard about from our families – never in school. Yeah, that was important. Be proud of that work. And known we’re proud of you, Ronnie.”
They all nod in agreement.
“Maybe one day you’ll paint us up on a wall,” adds Balthasar.
They laugh and Raygun betrays no emotion as he listens.
“Yeah, maybe, but for now we should remember the others,” concludes Melchior.
The ones that didn’t survive: for drugs, wars, police, a misunderstanding, a rivalry and those that left, never heard from again.
“Yeah, like old Frankie,” suggests Gus. “I knew Frankie. We went to school together.”
“You didn’t go to school with him, Manny went to school with him,” Baldo said.
“No. Yeah. Maybe, but I remember them.”
Raygun heard the stories before. Frankie isn’t the first musician from around here: far from it. There had been musicians on the hill for as long as there was Raza. “En los tiempos cuando se marchan con guitarras,” was a phrase Raygun heard them say. The phrase never made much sense until he saw photos from the revolution and the movement. There was always a musician present: guitar, drum, reeds or brass. Five decades later, photos from the movement are the same. If you looked close, there was always someone with a guitar. Well, usually it was a guitar, sometimes there was someone with a harp, but it was usually a guitar. Raygun figures it is still the same, just different: now we march with jaranas and emcees.
Frankie was part of a group that made them proud. For men like Gaspar, Balthasar and Mel, it was the first time they heard a group that could play what happened on the streets and what happened at home: rock n’ roll, soul, corridos, cumbia and sones. Raygun would always meet someone from that generation that claimed the group played their first wedding. Either they played everywhere, including all those weddings or everyone wanted them to play their wedding – a good feeling however you look at it.
“It was the bottle that took him, old Tomate,” Mel starts. “I seen a lot of them leave us that way – drink.”
The men all paused for a moment. Hearing no objection Mel, continues.
“When you drink like that, I guess it’s just a matter of time, you know.”
Balthasar looks up – thinking. As if a thought entered his eyes from the heavens, he begins to shake his head. He disagrees.
“No, no, Tomate didn’t go from drink. No, it was a car crash. It was a crash down on La Whittier. I remember – they got t-boned. Never saw it coming. Took him instantly.”
Mel is confused. He starts with a mile long no.
“Noooooooooo, I think it was alcohol. I mean, if it wasn’t him, who am I thinking about.”
Gaspar chimed in. “No, you’re both wrong. It wasn’t drink – that was Tom. Or maybe it was Beto. Ernesto? Shit, I think they all went out that way or related liver problems. And the car crash in ’82, that wasn’t Frankie, that was Harry and Fredo. They weren’t doing nothing but cruising to get a burger when someone busted a light and slammed into the car.”
“No, Frankie was shot. He was sitting on the back porch, having a drink, when a stray hit him. He just keeled over like that, they said. I wonder if he even felt it.”
They remain quiet for a moment. Overhead a Red-Tailed Hawk circles.
Then Mel speaks.
“Nope, nope that was Jesus – Chuy. Poor Chuy. His mother found him. Rest her soul – both of them. She died of a broken heart, losing her only son that way.
Mel uses his index finger to motion from his forehead to stomach then left shoulder and right shoulder. He mutters a phrase to himself in Latin that only other altar boys from his era recalled.
“Well, since we can’t rely on our memories any long,” he said, his voice rising to a cackle. “I might as well note that someone once told me it wasn’t any of that. Actually, they said, he choked. Choked to death in the middle of a party. Face turning red, clutching at his neck, eyes bulging as he gasped for air. I never bought that one. Man, choking, that’s a shitty way to go: talk about feeling stupid. Buying the ticket just ‘cause you can’t chew any smaller. Ah man.”
The old timers began to caw and laugh, like the flocks of wild parrots that flew into the hills and roosted in the trees.
“Ronnie, that’s why you need to paint – can’t rely on our memories any longer,” said Mel, wiping away the tears from his laughter. “We can tell some great stories, but forget about what actually happened. That’s why you need to paint – get this shit down. So when my grandkids ask about something, I can just point them to your paintings, just like Willie’s. Entiendes.” Raygun nods and goes his way.
The air is cooler. Despite the pavement and proximity to the urban core, Raygun had just ascended 1,000 feet. In the foothills, that was worthy of a break – some water, a bar packed with protein and energy and honey and other things to justify five dollars and reflective wrap. But this is City Terrace. You made it. That’s your reward. And you will go back down the hill tomorrow and ascend again without anyone thinking otherwise.
Home for a few hours now. Still no sign of anyone. So Raygun sits on the front porch. The last fits of activity of the afternoon recedes into the stillness that heralds early evening. Porch lights are on. Children called back behind front doors. Over the hill, he could hear the echoes of a radio – banda, rancheras, ‘80s pop ‘90s gangsta rap. And the sounds fading back.
It is time to paint. Raygun quietly locks the front door and steps out through the chain link front gate. The steel clicks to acknowledge his departure. Down the street. Purple bougainvillea wrap around fence. Long stemmed thorns hanging, waiting to catch an errant tail of a t-shirt or an unsuspecting jogger. Nearby, a San Pedro cactus stands 15 feet, its top recovering from a trimming and subsequent journey partaken by its consumer. Dogs huddle on porches, under car carriages and beneath the limbs of orange trees.
Familiar – Raygun allows the walk to clear his mind of the requirements and instead focus on the act – a still life in moonlight.
Tonight’s subject would be the nopal at the corner of the yard. Scarred and scratched from survival – construction, rain, development, decay and refusal to wash down the hill – the nopal was there when they arrived, there when they left and there when they returned. The red fruit would serve as its center, the bulb near bursting, which would display a clear tension Raygun hoped to capture. In a few days, if no one hacked the fruit down, it would split and be consumed by the elements, which might make for another interesting still life.
Lost in his thoughts, Raygun hadn’t heard the splashing of water from a hose. He turned the corner and saw the old man: long white hair flowing beneath bald cap and equally long beard. The hose in his hand had been punctured and patched so many times it had long relinquished its green, now a patchwork of silver duct tape, red electrical tape and even shards of woven palm fronds. He was watering the natives: drought resistant shrubs, cacti and bushes that didn’t really need water. But routine is routine.
Raygun had hoped to avoid conversation. He didn’t want to lose 30 minutes and turn a ten minute walk into nearly 45 minutes away from home.
“Oh, Ronald, hello there,” said the old man.
“Buenas Tardes Fredrick,” Raygun responded, ever polite as he was raised.
A frame of skin as taunt as a canvas, Raygun wondered if the old man weighed more than 100 pounds. White as the full moon, the old man was an anomally to some. How did a white guy end up here? But he was a reminder to the neighborhood’s past – indeed Los Angeles’ past – when this neighborhood was one of the first suburbs and an exclusive one at that.
“So, what brings you my way,” said the old man.
“I hadn’t thought of it that way – I just went to walk to clear my mind,” replied Raygun.
“Clear your mind, eh,” said the old man, in an accent Raygun could never quite place, simply because he had never heard it anywhere else.
“To think, to work or to prepare yourself to paint again, eh.”
“Something like that,” said Raygun, looking down at the mud that had been created by three parts City Terrace clay, err, yard, and one part water, or a half part water, given the amount of water lost to leaks between the water faucet and the hose nozzle. It was easy to follow the path of the hose. Not for water, as much as the path of wild flowers that grown and spring up by the constant inadvertent watering that occurs when Fredrick tends to his plants.
“And how is your family,” asked the old man.
My mother is dead. My father works. My uncle lost his job. My sister moved out. They wonder about what I’m doing.
“Fine,” said Raygun, uninterested in an honest assessment and eager to move on.
“Fine – fine. But we know better than that. I know it’s hard. I do. But your family is strong and so are you. So keep at it, just like Frankie.”
Raygun stops and stares at the old man.
“Yes, Frankie. Or as he is known now, Francisco. Francisco González. The wind carries, you know. I heard the young men talk to you.”
Young?, thought Raygun.
“Frankie never died. Well, not in the flesh. He has been written out of history, which some would argue is a form of death, but he is not unknown and those of us that see those histories recognize its limits and the use of its limits. No, we know. And Francisco González is alive and well and living in Manhattan, Kansas. Or so he tells me. Who is ever well, as your response tells me. No, he is well and alive. And we hear him everyday, or don’t you know that?”
Raygun was confused, as ever, by Fredrick. Again, he only muttered: “how.”
Fredrick arches his body towards the spigot and turns it. The flow of water halts, its last drop joining the pool that had formed in the mud at the old man’s feet.
“Do you know what they call the Yucca. It’s native you know, so I don’t really need to water it, but heck, it needs water, que no. Some called it the Lord’s Candle. Do you know why?
Fredrick isn’t actually waiting for a response.
“Because when it blooms and its stem extends from its sharp body, with flowers open, that’s what they thought it looked light. Enveloped in the light of the moon, the stem and its flower looked like a candle in the church, or at least so thought the Spaniards. There are other names for the same apparition: Ghost in the graveyard. For those that didn’t see the base of the Yucca and only came across it at night, the flower seemed an apparition – indeed, a ghost. What does this have to do with Frankie, wonders Raygun.
“The last time I saw Francisco, he was playing songs from the Californio period. Not too many that do that still. Even then, there weren’t many that did it. Yes, yes, he is not dead as your friends would have you believe.”
This is why Raygun knew better than to walk down this corner of the street. He thought the old man would have been asleep by now. He was wrong. So Raygun asked:
“How can I hear him?”
“Oh, that’s simple: the strings.”
The strings, the strings, wondered Raygun. It drove him nuts. Like Luke Skywalker dealing with Yoda on Dagobah. This old man, started Raygun.
“He makes the strings the musicians play,” began Fredrick. “The jaranas, the guitars, the guitarron – the strings needed to play the music: he makes those strings by hand. Your friends play them and they don’t even know, do they. They make speeches and people talk about how sad it was when he died. He laughs at that. Laughs and maybe even enjoys the quiet an assumed death brings you. He has his favorite versions of how he died too. Maybe someday you can ask him yourself. Someone should.”
Another mystery solved, though Raygun: so mysterious I didn’t even know it was a mystery.
“I agree with your friends though: paint him. Honor him as you do, but do yourself the favor of speaking with him too. Now, good night young man. And good night Yucca. Always say goodnight to your plants, Ronald.”
With that, the old man turns from the mud and towards the small studio built into the side of the hill.
The door quietly shuts. No more conversation, the young painter returns home.
He entered the yard. The clasp of the gate clicked shut. No one yet home. Still alone with the nopal.
George B. Sanchez-Tello writes and teaches in Los Angeles. After nearly ten years working as a reporter, including the award-winning documentary Nuestra Familia: Our Family, Sanchez-Tello earned a master’s degree in Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), home to the nation’s largest and oldest Chicana and Chicano Studies Department. He now teaches at CSUN. In addition, he teaches writing at Lennox Middle School, in South Los Angeles, as the Los Angeles Program Manager of Journalistic Learning Initiative. His recent writing has been published in Brooklyn & Boyle, Trail Posse, High Country News and Hyphen. “The Many Deaths of Francisco Gonzalez” is part of a larger body of work eventually to be published as Sanchez-Tello’s first novel.