GIVE MY LOVE TO THE SAVAGES
It was spring break, the riots had broken out, and I’d just flown into LA to visit my father. He picked me up from the airport in a new Porsche drop-top, and before I could even get my seat belt on he was yelling, “Status report, Junie” right in my ear. No “Hi, Junie,” “I missed you, Junie,” “Hey, how you been, Junie boy?” I hadn’t seen him in months. All I got was, “That crackerjack jury just let the cops off. It’s a goddamn uprising.”
We were ripping east down the 105 by then, breaking away from traffic, and we could barely hear a thing. Pop refused to ride with the top up on any of his convertibles—it was California, for shit’s sake—so whenever we got on the freeway we had to shout just to be heard over the wind.
He leaned in close, as he always did, and said, “Hey, dummy? You hear me?”
I leaned in close and said, “Yes, dummy. I heard you.”
“Good. Because it’s a goddamn rebellion, Junie. It’s a fucking revolt.”
I was twenty-one at the time and admittedly kind of a turd. When I was around my father, sarcasm was my mother tongue. “Really?” I said. “A revolt? You sure someone’s not just having a really big barbecue, Pop?” I grinned at him, pleased with myself, but he never took kindly to my mouth. He looked at me like I was a mental patient. His face shriveled into a scowl. “No one likes a smartass, smartass. Watch yourself.”
As we curled onto the 405 interchange and a new tangle of cars appeared up ahead, I told him to save the riot talk. The flight attendants told everyone on the plane before we landed. But he didn’t want to hear it. He was still in a mood. A few of his businesses had screwed the pooch earlier that year, and he’d nearly lost his ass. The possibility of losing more in a riot probably had his sphincter knotted up good. He kept making the same face as when he’d broken his ankle two years before, when the painkillers he was on made him ferociously constipated.
“So the flight attendants told you about the riots, did they? Well, that’s just fucking awesome. Did they tell you what it’s really like down here, too? People looting and setting fires and shit?”
“No,” I shouted. “But isn’t that what people usually do when they riot, Pop? Loot and set fires and shit?”
He turned his head slowly and gave me the look, the icy gaze of ill intent he reserved just for me. He shouted, “Hey, smartass? What did I just tell you about being a smartass?” Naturally, when I opened my mouth to answer, he lifted his hand and said, “Shut it.”
He’d called me right before spring break, talking like a loan shark, as usual. Just under the wind, through the crackling connection of his car phone, I could barely hear him say, “You owe me a visit, Junie,” “owe” being the operative word. Pop always liked his favors returned to him one way or another, and clearly he thought he’d done me a solid by “bumping pelvises” with my mother in the first place. I spent every spring break working as cheap labor at one of his car dealerships: answering phones, changing toner in the Xerox, and generally acting like I was working without actually doing any work, which, at that point in my life, was a talent of mine. He was always quick to remind me that he, not my mother, was paying for my East Coast education. In his mind, it made sense I repay him with the only valuable thing I had at the time: the best days of my youth.
Though I hadn’t seen him in a year, much less talked to him, I didn’t see any change in him whatsoever. He didn’t look any older. He didn’t look any wiser. He didn’t look any less tan. If anything, he looked more like himself than he ever had. His hair was still long, bound into a glistening ponytail. He still preferred mercury-colored suits and white dress shirts open at the collar. And his jewelry—a pinky ring, a left earring, and a single gold chain—all sparkled as blindingly as ever, even in the haze-choked sun.
The only thing different about this visit was what Pop was now calling “the mutiny.” It’d started around three that afternoon, a Wednesday, while I was flying somewhere over the Southwest. From the air, during my plane’s descent, LA didn’t look any different. It was the same sprawling mess I’d always known, the motherboard of downtown barely visible through the clouds. Everything seemed fine until we pierced the smog. I could see packs of tiny fire trucks and police cars in the streets, the odd blaze just beginning to grow. Something wasn’t quite right, even for LA. And of course now Pop’s sneaky ass was driving us right into it without any explanation.
He rocketed us onto the 405 North, zipping us in and out of traffic, cutting off practically every car on the highway. After the interchange, though, he miscalculated and got us stuck behind a bus of schoolkids. He cursed, swerved out onto the shoulder to MacGyver around them. Then he got neck and neck with the driver so he could give him the finger. Pop saluted the guy so long the kids on the bus laughed and waved their middle fingers back at us. He flipped them off too.
At the Manchester Avenue exit near Inglewood, he aimed the Porsche to the right and fired us off the freeway, saying, “Get ready,” but mostly to himself.
Naturally, I asked what for.
He reached under his seat for his Walther PPK, checking the clip to see if it was full and then popping it back in. “Assailants,” he said. “And before you ask, this is so they’ll think twice about fucking with us.”
I nodded, since getting fucked with in Inglewood was always a possibility, even without a riot going on.
We shot off the freeway and turned onto Manchester and ran straight into a wild mob. Every car in front of us immediately tried to pull a U-ey and get back on the freeway, but all they did was clog the street like cattle in a chute. “Geniuses,” Pop said, as he kamikazed us into oncoming lanes until we reached Inglewood Avenue. There we were met by an even bigger hive of people.
Everyone was pissed off and confused, an odd mix of anger and exhilaration hot on their faces. Some ran from one side of the street to the other and then decided they didn’t like it there and ran back. Some held bricks and rocks in their hands, just waiting for a worthy target, like us. As we weaved through, their white-people radar must’ve gone off, because they all stopped rioting, turned around, and watched Pop and me like we had horns growing out of our heads. I wanted to tell them we were the good guys, or at least that I was. Something like, “Hey, my mother’s black. Like, really black. I’m one of you.” But Pop took a different approach. “You don’t have bumpers on your black asses. Get out of the street, numbnuts.”
I elbowed him and said that probably wasn’t the best thing to say right then.
“Yeah? Why not?”
“Because your ass isn’t black. If your ass isn’t black, you can’t call their asses black. That’s kind of the rule.”
Pop shook his head as we threaded through another gang of looters. He laid on the horn, parting the crowd, and one of the harder-looking guys smiled at us. “Damn, white man. You got some nuts on you, know that? Don’t you know where you are?”
“Yeah,” Pop said. “I’m in America. Where are you?”
“Hell,” someone shouted.
Given our present surroundings, right then seemed like a good time to ask what the fuck we were doing there.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Pop said. “How about driving around this town making sure none of my dealerships have been torched yet. Fine with you?”
After he picked me from the airport each spring, he usually took me to a bar or, if I was lucky, a strip club. By one or two in the morning, we’d end up at his house in Malibu, drunk and stewing away in his Jacuzzi. At that moment, however, flying down the road, I was in no position to complain, because, really, I never was. He was liable to say, “You want some cheese with that whine?” and then leave me there on the side of the road. He’d done it before.
At the Inglewood car lot, we were greeted by Pop’s fleshy face. It was pasted on a large billboard over a double-wide that served as the dealership office. His image was so gargantuan that his pores were as large as divots, his nose the size of a car door. Like most of his other lots, this one spanned an entire block, nothing but an asphalt parcel of clunkers, a neon price tag plastered on each windshield. Most of the inventory had been in accidents, fires, floods, or other cataclysmic events. Knowing Pop, there was always at least one that’d been sheared in half in a wreck and then welded back together.
We pulled inside the gates, and on the office roof, Burger, one of Pop’s guys, was doing the cabbage patch to a soul song blasting from a boombox. Behind his lumbering silhouette, a helix of smoke twined in the air. “Look at him,” Pop said. “The roof’s on fire, and he’s dancing up there like a circus bear.”
The roof wasn’t on fire. Burger was just grilling, albeit in an odd place. I pointed out the grill and the bag of charcoal, the pair of tongs in Burger’s hand, but Pop still sprang out of the car like someone tossed a tarantula in his lap. “Hey, I’m paying you to make sure the place doesn’t catch fire, not help it along.”
“What you mean?” Burger said.
“Grilling on the roof doesn’t seem like a fire hazard to you?”
“Maybe.” Burger considered the situation now, apparently for the first time. “But everybody’s on their roofs. Plus, I got hungry.”
I checked the surrounding buildings, and, sure enough, there was a person atop each one, armed with a gun or a fire hose or both. Across a side street, a young Korean man patrolled the front of a small grocery with a pistol, while another watched from the roof like a tower guard, an AK-47 cradled in one arm and what could’ve been a rocket launcher in the other.
“We’re turning bad rioters into good ones. Ain’t that right?” Burger raised his fist in solidarity. The Koreans gave a salute and then returned to duty. “Y’all wanna get your stink on while you’re here?” Burger held up two cans of Schlitz.
“Of course,” I said. “When have I ever turned down a beer?”
He pointed at Pop with his tongs. “What about you, ballerina?”
Pop was still pissed, but he took one too. He’d never turned down a beer either.
We went back a long way with Burger, Pop’s longest-serving employee. He was one of those black guys who always seemed at ease with his place in the world, even if deep down he really wasn’t. I admired him for it. As a kid, when Pop wasn’t around, I used to tell people that Burger was my real father. It was our little game. But for some reason no one ever believed me.
“Goddamn, youngblood,” Burger said. “You sure picked a hell of a time to visit.”
I cracked my beer. “Hey, I was cursed with bad timing and a rotten father. What am I gonna do?” I smiled at Pop as he guzzled his beer. In return, he gave me the finger.
“Well, what’ve you been up to?” Burger said.
“No good,” Pop chimed in. “What do you think he’s been up to? This is Junie you’re talking to.”
“Shit, I guess that makes two of us,” Burger said. “I just got out of jail.”
I asked what he was in for, and he gave his usual answer: “Various things.”
Pop took a long pull and finished his beer, his eyes darting around as though he expected the lot to spontaneously combust. “Enough chitchat. Burger, tell me nothing’s happened yet.”
“Nothing’s happened yet.”
“Nobody’s tried to steal or burn anything down?”
Burger removed a revolver from his waistline and sat on the edge of the roof. He balanced the gun next to him and let his legs dangle as if he were sitting at the end of a dock. “Hell no. Ain’t no niggas messing with this place. I told you. With me here, you can count on that.” He shouted the last part loud enough for the gangbangers on Manchester to hear. They were my age, maybe a little younger, and veterans at mean-mugging. As I watched them, a light-skinned Blood with a red bandanna around his neck waved at me. I nodded at him, and he mouthed, “Fuck you, white boy.”
I wanted to walk over there and tell him I was only half-white, but I knew he’d just kick my ass. I slowly turned my attention back to Pop.
“We’re counting on you, big man.”
“I know,” Burger said.
“Only shoot if you’re absolutely threatened. You hear me? Absolutely.” Pop always put extra emphasis on “absolutely.” According to him, ex-cons couldn’t understand instructions without this word, and ex-cons made up the majority of his workforce.
“Only if I’m absolutely threatened,” Burger said. “I got it.”
That was it. I told Burger to stay out of trouble. He said, “Ditto.” Pop and I got back in the Porsche and sped off like criminals making a getaway.
I was used to this. I’d been dividing time between Pop in LA and my mother in Boston since I was ten, when my parents went splitsville for good. I spent every spring break of my childhood with Pop, running endless errands around LA and the surrounding counties. Whatever he did, I did: lounging at the bar of Sam’s Hofbrau while he flirted with dancers who fawned over me. Shooting at The LA Gun Club with my own Browning Hi-Power 9mm. Smoking Humboldt because Pop thought I should choke on the good stuff with him in a controlled environment. How I hadn’t been maimed or killed yet was beyond me.
From what I could glean as a child, my parents met during the height of their checkered pasts. Pop had connections to some crooked characters in Boston, owners of an establishment that my mother worked at called The Peephole. What her work actually entailed I never wanted to know. Regardless, my parents became a couple almost instantly. My white father had, at the time of meeting my mother, an exclusive thing for non-white women. My black mother, conversely, could never shake her attraction to moneyed men of the pale-faced variety. That being their only criteria for love, it was a wonder the marriage lasted long enough to produce light-skinned, curly-haired, bony-assed me.
For as long as I could remember, every time my mother packed me off for my cross-country jaunts, she’d say, “You can’t change the fact that you got some white in you, Junie, but it doesn’t mean you gotta act like your father’s white ass.”
Sadly, up to that point in my life, I’d failed her.
Back at school, everyone called me June the Goon. Like my father, I’d cultivated a reputation as one of those guys. I was fairly smart, but I tended to do fairly dumb things. Not quite a troublemaker. Not quite a fuckup. That fall and winter, though, I’d found myself sinking into trouble, having barely avoided jail time for an unfortunate incident. I was starting to look a lot like Pop, who’d found himself in the clink once or twice around my age. I knew if I kept it up, I’d quit school in a year, start selling cars, and, like him, date a series of shady women. I’d grow a ridiculous ponytail and start driving a Porsche. It was my biggest fear, one that produced a recurring nightmare: me not living my life but reliving his. Afterward, I’d always wake up in a sweat and reach for the jug of antacids I kept by my bed, crunching them as I tried to fall back asleep.
By eight p.m., the entire proceedings were, in Pop’s scholarly opinion, a shit circus. We were back on the 405, heading north again, and in the distance, more plumes of smoke snaked above the skyline. Even though the freeways, each an orgy of brake lights, were as still as paintings, Pop didn’t let it stop us. He used every piece of pavement he could find—shoulders, medians, off-ramps—to zip us around the city. We’d checked on three more dealerships by then, Carson, Long Beach, and East LA. Each lot was being guarded by new hires, guys I’d never met before. All three were black. All three had Jheri curls. And all three were named, oddly enough, Doozie. At each lot, it was the same as with Burger. Pop made sure they were armed. They were keeping the gates locked. Everything was tiptop. We moved on.
At the Huntington Park exit, he dumped us off the freeway and we trolled down Pacific Boulevard aimlessly. I asked where we were going, and he just patted his potbelly and grunted, “Food.” I said, “Who gets hungry at a time like this?” But we both knew it was a stupid question. Pop’s appetites could only be described as gluttonous. We passed a few restaurants, and they all seemed to be closing or getting plundered. So we skated a little farther down Pacific until we stumbled on an open but deserted In-N-Out. We pulled up to the drive-thru, and they took our order as if it were any old day. When we pulled around to pay, though, the Latina cashier didn’t take our money. She just tossed the food at us, locked the window, and immediately put up the Closed sign. We pulled around and parked by a dumpster. Behind us, all the employees burst out of the restaurant like someone tossed a bomb in the place. Pop looked back, softly biting a Swisher Sweet with his teeth. “Well, that sure was interesting.” Then he just stabbed a straw into his drink and started to eat.
We were the only bystanders out there, pushing our luck in a new Porsche among all that lawlessness. But, relatively speaking, things didn’t seem that bad yet. No one was bothering us. No one seemed to even notice us. Across the street, a Payless shoe store was being ransacked, the parking lot littered with empty shoeboxes. Down the sidewalk, an interracial couple steered a new leather sofa dollied on two skateboards. Even some guy clutching an armful of bathrobes rambled by, touting, “Robe. Robe here,” as though peddling peanuts at a Dodgers game. Who knew what would happen next.
On our left, a Humvee rumbled past Dick’s Donuts. Not far behind, six National Guardsmen on horseback clopped by. A black dude who’d somehow climbed on top of Dick’s and was now sitting inside the large donut on the roof yelled, “Hey, G.I. Joe. You hungry?” as he pelted them with donut holes. I turned back to Pop, but he was lost in thought, studying the smoke churning over downtown and feeding his face. He’d ordered two Double-Doubles Animal Style and had already dispatched both in ten flat. He was stuffing handfuls of fries into his mouth, while I only nibbled at my burger. I hadn’t had an appetite for months. I didn’t even bother with the bread, just ate the meat, which I was trying to choke down when Pop said, “You know why those flight attendants couldn’t tell you nothing, Junie?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”
“Because they don’t know nothing. I do. Cops in this town think their shit don’t stink. But that don’t make it cool for every black mope and his fat mother to turn the city into a goddamn ashtray, know what I’m saying?”
I just shook my head. “Black mope? Fat mother?”
“You see any white people out here other than us?”
“You mean other than you?” I scanned the street and spotted a scruffy white guy in two seconds. He maneuvered a shopping cart full of Budweiser with a perverse glee. “What about him?”
Pop blinked at him and then glanced at me. “An anomaly,” he said.
“I’m just saying, Pop. You sound kind of Aryan right now.”
“Do I? Well, I guess beating up a bunch of Indians makes you Martin Luther King.”
My belly gurgled. I was pretty sure I had the beginnings of an ulcer. “It wasn’t a bunch,” I said. “Just one. And I didn’t beat him up. I was only there.”
He looked at me out of the side of his eye. “Only there, huh?”
I nodded and tried to take another bite of my burger but couldn’t stomach it. I lobbed it into the nearest trashcan, took my pack of antacids from my duffel bag, and chewed a few.
“There or not, you’re lucky I got you that lawyer. Otherwise, you’d be doing time right now.”
“That lawyer was a horrible person.”
“I know. Why do you think I hired him?”
“He made me sound like a sociopath.”
“Yeah? What if you are one?”
I looked at him, wondering if he actually thought that. When he cracked a smile, I told him to eat me, and he slapped my thigh and laughed.
“Who cares what he said? You’re free, aren’t you?”
I was just about to say I shouldn’t be when he turned to me with an indignant sneer.
“And how can you call me a racist? I married your mother, let’s not forget. She’s as black as they come.”
I studied him for a moment. If I disagreed, he’d be mad at me for the rest of the night and probably punish me for it. I just said, “Yeah, you married her. And you had me.”
He said, “Yeah, I did,” as though that proved his point.
We sat there a little longer, being father and son in our own dysfunctional way, and for some reason everything stilled around us. The sirens ceased. The crashing glass and bleeping alarms stopped too. Looters froze mid-step and searched the sky curiously. Maybe it was over. In the distance, two helicopters clapped toward us from the south, their spotlights scanning Compton. I heard what sounded like a string of fireworks blocks away and watched as the helicopters split off from each other. One of them seemed to teeter, as if it would suddenly drop from the sky. Then, as if nothing happened, it righted itself, and the two of them moved back into formation. They quickly banked east in tandem, and I realized it’d been an evasive maneuver. Someone had shot at them from the ground.
“Damn. You see that?”
Pop swiveled his head, oblivious as always. “See what?”
Everything started back up, the sirens, the looting, the alarms, like a crazy merry-go-round cranking back to life.
“Nothing,” I said. “Can we go now?”
He smirked and tossed his soda overboard. “Stop whining,” he said. “We’re going.” He backed the car up and got us on the road. He pounded the Porsche into high gear. The whistling turbocharger went up an octave. The tires broke loose a bit.
“Where are we going now?”
He smiled. “You’ll see.”
That school year, I’d moved in with some white guys that I barely knew. We shared a crumbling Victorian near the UMass Boston campus, where our academic careers hung by a thread. Their families all had a lot more going for them than mine, but we’d all been given the same opportunities in life, good schools, summer camps, money. So, all of us living together didn’t seem like such a bad idea. We were spoiled and took things for granted. We operated under the assumption that no matter what dumb shit we did, everything would somehow work out, the usual attitude of people who were high most of the time. We had so many pills and herbs and mind-altering powders in our house we didn’t know what we were taking half the time. Speed or Ritalin for studying, K and E for screwing off. We were so out of hand that at parties we’d leave stray tablets of Correctol around and then make bets on which guest would be the first to mistakenly take one, hoping it was a Valium or Benzo, and get the squirts for a day and a half.
Our time would end badly. It was obvious. But stopping that freight train would’ve taken more willpower and sense than I had at the time. It was easier to just let it all go down in a ball of flame. At the trial for the thing with the Indian kid, I thought our guilt was pretty apparent. We’d be going away for a while. But not everyone thought so. Our families had money and lawyers. Young men like us couldn’t have done such a thing. My mother blamed the white boys for it, not me. They corrupted me, she said. Anyone would end up in court after hanging around white kids named Tyler, Tucker, and Chase. They sounded like a law firm.
Her support was unquestioning at first, but once the trial started and our pictures were in The Globe every other day, she could barely look at me. She’d sit in the back of the court room, if she was there at all, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. When reporters rushed us as we left each day, she lowered her head, putting a gloved hand out at the sight of photographers. A couple weeks of that, and she stopped going altogether. From then on, I sat at the defense table, trying not to look over my shoulder every two seconds to see if she was there.
I couldn’t blame her. The lawyer Pop hired painted me as some racially confused kid with neglectful parents. He even used an expert witness, a psychologist who testified to the emotional effects of being mixed race in this country, how it led to “antisocial behavior in the desperate quest to fit in.” During the cross-examination, I turned to my lawyer and whispered, “You’re making me sound like a freak.” He said, “That’s because you are a freak. This country made you that way. It’s not your fault.”
He insisted I believe it if I wanted to stay out of jail. In the end, he was right. I came home from sentencing and found my mother in her bedroom, whiling away her evening as she always did, at her vanity, nursing a glass of red wine and a roach clip. She didn’t look at all surprised when she saw me there. “And?”
I loosened my tie. “Probation. Three months.”
She took a sip of wine, set her glass down, and then turned away as though the sight of me burned her eyes. “And your friends? What about them?” She’d never called them my friends before.
“A year of jail time each.”
She grunted as though it served them right. Then she got up and closed her door on me. I retreated to my room and hid there, chewing antacids till they stole all the moisture from my mouth.
By nightfall, Pop and I had to stick to the freeways, the 5, the 10, the 405, the 710. Driving the surface streets was no longer advised. Radio reports said whites traveling through black areas were being pulled from their cars and beaten. On Florence and Normandie, a white truck driver had been dragged from his semi and smashed in the head with a brick. At the same intersection, a Latino man, mistaken for Korean, had been wrenched from his car, stripped of his clothes, and spray-painted. And of course we were in a new Porsche, a fact Pop now regretted. “I should have my head examined for taking this car out on a day like this. Should’ve driven the Jeep. I finally had the bulletproof windows installed. I ever tell you that?”
“Why would you need bulletproof windows?”
He looked at me like I was stupid. “Because, Junie, this is LA.”
There was no way we were going back to Malibu to switch cars. We just made do, ripping along, stopping to check on this dealership or that. Pop’s mood gradually changed. He was back to his old self again and kept going on and on about the cops and the verdict and what he would’ve done had he been an elected official. None of it made a bit of sense. He took us down freeways and off-ramps so fast I could barely hear him over the wind, but I was trying to listen as best I could. If I didn’t, I didn’t know what he’d get me into.
We’d checked on all of his dealerships but the one in Koreatown. Pop was still talking a mile a minute, and I only caught a word or two. We slowed to take the 110 North exit, the wind dying down as we curved around the ramp, and I finally heard him clearly. “So I’m afraid I have to put you to work earlier than usual, Junie.” His preface to any sort of bad news. “So I’m afraid your mother kicked me out, Junie. We’re getting a divorce.” “So I’m afraid you’re going to rehab, Junie—again, you little shit” would come later in my life.
“Hey.” He snapped his fingers. “You hear me?”
I nodded but didn’t say anything. I looked farther up the highway at a white sheet draped over a fenced overpass. On it “No Justice 4 Rodney” was painted in a bloody maroon. I wanted to raise my fist in solidarity at the black kids standing next to the sign. But then I thought it might look weird coming from me: a mixed kid riding next to his white father in a new white Porsche.
Pop snapped his fingers again. “Hey, I asked you a question.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Put me to work doing what?”
He actually grinned and patted my thigh again, his ponytail lashing his headrest. “Oh, you know. The usual.”
I popped an antacid in my mouth.
“Keep eating those things, and you’ll get kidney stones.”
I waved him off and grabbed his pack of Swishers from the console. There was only one cigarillo left, hiding in the corner of the pack. I took it just to spite him. “Don’t change the subject, dummy. You’re getting me into some shit. Just say so.”
He reached over and lit the cigarillo for me with his butane, a sly look on his face. “Don’t doubt your pop.” He gave me one of his special winks, the kind he used on ladies next to him at red lights. “Believe me, it won’t be bad.” He waited a moment, calculating as ever, and said, “Really,” as though there was a chance of me believing him.
The Koreatown lot was the dealership I’d worked at the most, and also the shittiest. Pop, the shrewd businessman, positioned his dealerships in some of LA’s sketchier areas, places you’d see a good number of walls tattooed with graffiti, crackheads trying to sell you a broken VCR, or maybe a few women on the stroll. Whether he’d admit it or not, Pop capitalized on the low resources of the poor. Immigrants and black single mothers didn’t have the money to sue if the hooptie they just bought took a crap a month later. It was how he made his money, how he buttered his bread, all of it owed to the inequity of the world. One day, my riches would be owed to it, too, as long as he didn’t blow it all before he croaked. I was always pretty sure he would.
As we exited the 405, Pop took out the PPK again and held it in his lap. We crossed Venice and Olympia Boulevards, coasted down South Western Avenue. The surroundings worsened street by street. The tang of burning wood and rubber was heavy in the air. Crowds roared and security alarms sounded in the close distance. On Wilshire, hordes of people blocked the intersection, pushing each other around and throwing bricks at passing cars. A Toyota a block ahead got all its windows broken out. The glass had barely hit the ground, and looters were already reaching inside the car. The driver sped off with a couple of them hanging on for dear life.
We wove through the loose crowds as we approached Wilshire, Pop honking the horn for people to move. With the sun down and the fires more intense, Koreatown glowed a dangerous orange. I could feel the heat as we passed blazing storefronts. The ones that weren’t on fire had looters gushing out of the shattered windows like water through a breached dam. They carried every kind of merchandise imaginable, random things like hair dryers and lamps and packs of lightbulbs. As we approached the mob, a small pocket of space opened, and Pop told me to hold on. He mashed the throttle, raised his gun, and waved it around like a wild man, parting the crowd.
We turned onto West Sixth and pulled up in front of the car lot. He gave me a ring of keys, and I got out and unlocked the gate. I got back in the Porsche as fast as I could, even though West Sixth was quiet and seemed to be untouched. Unlike Pop’s other lots, this one was a small affair, a stamp of asphalt with a ten-foot fence surrounding it, only about fifteen clunkers on the premises. Once we’d pulled in and parked, I looked up at the roof to see if anyone was standing guard, but there was only Pop’s huge face on the billboard. “WE FINANCE” in big block letters jumped out of his mouth.
“No one’s here.”
“I know.” He scratched his nose.
“No fucking way.”
He nodded. “We’re gonna watch it till all this blows over.” He shut off the engine and unlatched his seat belt. He opened his door halfway, and then he turned and looked back at me. “C’mon.”
Without thinking, I got out of the car and closed my door. When I looked back, he was still behind the wheel. He closed his door and quickly hit the power locks. “Sorry to have to do this to you, Junie,” he said, sitting back now.
I kept pulling at the door handle even though I’d just seen him lock it. “You’re not sorry. You’re never sorry.”
“C’mon,” he said. “Take it like a man. I need you here tonight. I got guys watching the other dealerships.”
I hesitated and then asked if he was crazy. It seemed like an appropriate question.
“No,” he said. “I’m as sane as ever.”
“Pop, if you don’t let me back in—”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “What? This’ll all blow over by tomorrow. You’ll forget all about this.”
Sometimes, this was true. I could be bought off with drinks and a good time in the right context. It was how our relationship worked. He’d do something to piss me off, and then he’d buy me something or take me wherever I wanted to go. There’d be women and weed, and we’d be friends again.
“C’mon, Pop.” I tried to climb back in, but his eyes went black.
“No, no, no.” He took the gun from the dash and just held it. He chewed his lip and considered me for a long moment. Finally, he leaned over the seat. I thought he was going to unlock the door and let me back in. But his hand went to the glove box instead. He pulled out a PPK identical to his and held it out for me. “Here.” When I refused, he shook the thing at me and then forced it into my hand. “And don’t start whining. I’m tired of it. You sound like those bastards you call friends.”
I was about to say they weren’t my friends when he said, “Junie, don’t kid yourself. You wanted to be just like those kids.”
“I’m not like anyone.”
“Sure you’re not. You’re unique.” He fluttered his hands in the air. “A pretty little baby. That’s what your mother wants you to believe.”
As soon as he said it, something lit me up. I stood back and kicked the passenger door. “Say something else about my mother.”
His eyes went blacker. “I swear, if you do that again, Junie—”
That was all it took. Heel to metal. “Look,” I said. “I even took some paint this time.”
A tense few seconds passed, and then a pack of looters ran near the lot. Some were silent and ashamed, the rest desperate and mechanical. They left quickly, and another small gang stopped at the entrance, at least ten deep. They were teenagers, black and Latino, in T-shirts or wifebeaters. They’d apparently never noticed the dealership before and now thought it suddenly looked like a good place to steal shit from.
Pop waved his gun. “Keep it moving, people.” They didn’t move so he aimed his gun and added, “Unless you feel like catching one in the ass.” The pack paused for another second and then did as he said, shouting epithets as they left. Pop just rolled his eyes and waved, as if he knew them. “Yes, and give my love to the savages.”
“Fuck you,” they said.
He opened the car’s console and removed a fresh pack of Swishers. “I don’t care, Junie. Kick the car till your foot breaks. I can get another. You know how many insurance claims there are gonna be after all this?” He lit one of the cigarillos and sent smoke out his nostrils. For a long minute, he watched me, the smoke slithering up around his eyes.
“What?” I said. “The guilt finally getting to you?”
“No, not really.” He slid the lighter into his breast pocket and put the car in reverse. “I don’t have time for this. If I don’t get off the streets now, that’ll be the end of me.”
“Yeah, that would be really unfortunate, wouldn’t it, Pop?”
He looked at me and sighed. “Junie, it makes more sense for you to be here. No telling what they’d do to me, but you—they’ll think you’re one of them.”
I shook my head, astonished at his stupidity. “How are you my father?”
He sighed again. “How are you my son?”
Both questions hung in the air. He’d been doing this to me since I was ten, leaving me places or with strangers, saying he’d be right back, and then not showing up for hours. Once, he tried to leave me at one of his girlfriend’s houses when I was eleven. As he left, I beaned him in the face with a rock, splitting both his lips. He put me right on a plane back to Boston and didn’t talk to me for a year after that.
I gripped the PPK. I hadn’t held a gun in a few years, but I raised it and homed in on his tires as he pulled away. The PPK felt heavy, its trigger tight. It took a bit of finger power to pull it, but when it finally gave, the gun released a puny click.
Pop stopped the car and looked back at me with a smirk. “I knew you were gonna do that.”
I tried to rack the slide to chamber a round, but I couldn’t get it.
“You really are out of practice, aren’t you?” After another moment, he pointed at the side of the gun. “It won’t fire with the safety on, genius.”
When I unlocked it, he sped off. I chased him into the street just to scare him, but he was already in third gear, heading down Sixth. I lowered the gun and reached in my pocket for my antacids. There weren’t any left.
Most nights, after my probation was up, I hid in my room with a towel under the door, smoking a bud or two I’d pinched from my mother’s stash. I’d been forced to transfer to community college and was still just skating by. Somehow, I found myself back in my mother’s good graces. My instructors were bigots, she said. They’d heard about my troubles and were punishing me for it. I’d look at the newspaper clippings I kept from the trial, studying that boy’s name, Amarpreet, and his face, round and doughy, dark around the eyes. When I couldn’t look at him anymore, I’d sneak out of our Back Bay condo and ride the T around the city. Some nights, I’d ride until they kicked me off. Other nights, I’d get off in Roxbury or Mattapan and wander the pitch-black streets. I hoped I’d get shot or robbed or beaten within an inch of my life. It only seemed fair.
The night everything happened, my roommates and I were making one last drug run for the night. We were trying to cop some coke from some black guys in the projects. As soon as they saw the money, they promptly robbed us, laughing as they pointed a gun in the car. I thought it was a sign we should go home, but my roommates wanted to hit a couple more spots. Every dealer was dry so we drove around, pissed off and drunk, passing around another bottle. One of the twins, Tyler or Tucker, said they felt like beating the shit out of someone. I thought it was just talk. We’d never gone looking for fights. We weren’t even that tough, but because we had numbers, the feeling gained momentum. Pretty soon, they were assessing people we drove by, looking for someone alone. I said, “Hold on, hold on,” but they didn’t hear me. When we rolled up in Chase’s Mustang and saw Amarpreet, I knew they were going to pick him, even before Tucker said, “Look, a towelhead.” With a screech, we parked. They jumped out of the car like SWAT, stopping the boy under a streetlight. When he looked up, he actually smiled. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, a chubby kid with pointy breasts pushing at the front of a Sox jersey, a tan turban around his head.
From the back seat I thought, Okay, a couple punches, a bloody nose, fine. They’ll get it out of their systems. The kid could go home to his dorm room and cry himself to sleep. But after some pushing and shoving it was clear they weren’t going easy on him. Tucker knocked him down with a brutal right. Amarpreet tried to get up, but Tyler promptly dropped him with an identical right. Chase grabbed him by the neck and unraveled the turban from his head like a bandage. They stood him up, the boy crying now, whimpering. They pushed him against a wall. His hair cascaded over his face, black and shiny and stretching to his knees. It freaked them out enough to knock him down again and start kicking.
I didn’t get out of the car. I just watched, the whole time wondering who that kid was. Someone’s good son, an only child, a late arrival? Maybe his parents, older and gentler, were tirelessly devoted to him, blessed to be given a child at all. Maybe they kissed him on the cheek every morning at breakfast, a small ritual they performed all the way up to the morning he left for a far-off school. Even now, he would remember to call them before bed, knowing the time difference would make it morning back home. They’d tell him not to call, to save his money, to buy himself something special, but he still called every night. Not just for them but for him. So he would feel like nothing had changed. He wasn’t a lonely boy in a foreign country. He was there, next to them, at home, like a family. Because that was how most families worked.
When Chase said, “Junie, don’t you want a piece of this little fucker?” I thought of all that, jealous of that poor kid. I almost got out of the car. A part of me wanted to hurt him, but I decided to stay put. Chase punched him and then looked back at me, laughing. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I’m good.”
It was well past one o’clock in the morning, and I hadn’t heard anything from Pop. I called my mother, but the line just rang, so I wandered out to the parking lot and stood there, looking around. The rioting had quieted down for the night. Alarms were still going off, but I couldn’t hear the crowds on Wilshire anymore, only an occasional whoop or shout. West Sixth was still empty, except for the Koreans who owned the convenience store across the street. Though there was no danger in sight, a younger Korean man barricaded the store by stacking metal shopping carts in front of the store’s glass windows while an older man held a shotgun and patrolled the street. I watched them for a few minutes and realized they were father and son. Every now and then, the father would walk over and pat the son on the back, saying something encouraging in Korean. I looked over my shoulder, and there was Pop’s billboard on the dealership’s roof, his cartoon face smiling down at me. I aimed the gun at him, imagined a clean bullet hole in his head, but I couldn’t pull the trigger.
I went inside the office and left the PPK on one of the desks. I rummaged through the lockbox till I found the keys for the sturdiest vehicle on the lot, a Chevy Suburban. Outside, I unlocked the gates and pulled the monster out into the street.
I left and drove down Sixth. I turned on Wilshire, passing buildings that had once stood three stories and now were charred rubble. Outside the buildings that still raged, people stood mesmerized by each fire. One man in particular tried to quench twenty-foot flames with a garden hose. Down alleys, I saw guys rocking cars that were lying on their sides. But I couldn’t tell if the guys were trying to put them back on their wheels or flip them on their roofs. Every block was like that. Glass glittered the pavement, the specks glinting under the lights like a million tiny diamonds.
Traffic lights still worked. Abandoned cars still idled at intersections. I drove aimlessly, hoping I’d find someone to rescue, but no one needed my help. I navigated the streets, venturing deep into Compton and Watts, driving past shadowy figures gathered on porches and in yards. Occasionally, as I’d pass, a rock would hit the side of the truck, and I’d hear them yelling for me to leave. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I turned down dark streets, one after another. I honked the horn to let people know I was there.
It wasn’t until I went down a residential street near Slauson that I saw them: four black guys standing in the street next to an ’80s Impala. They were leaning against the car, talking as if on their lunch break. Above them, a streetlight shone down in such a way that they looked like actors on a stage. I killed the Suburban’s lights and rolled to a stop a half-block away. I put the truck in park across the street from them and ended up sitting there for a few minutes before they noticed me. They wore loose khakis, no shirts, and were passing around a couple forties of Olde English.
When I rolled down my window, one of them pointed me out to the others, and the tallest of the four stared at me, wary. He kept looking around and then squinting at me as if he thought I’d suddenly pull a drive-by. Finally, he walked over. An armor of muscles covered his body. His Jheri curl glimmered in the light. He came up near my window and looked at me for a minute before shouting, “What you doing?”
I didn’t know, but I knew I couldn’t say that. “Just driving around.”
This didn’t please him. “The fuck for? You crazy?” Even from five feet away, I could smell the liquor on his breath. He walked closer. “I asked you a question, white boy.”
I must have smirked, because he was suddenly ready to kill me.
“I’m funny to you?” He looked back at his friends, who’d lost all interest in us.
“You called me ‘white boy,’” I said.
“Yeah, I know. That’s because you’re white.” He looked back at his friends, but they were shooting dice on the hood of the car, which upset him. His attitude seemed to be for their benefit. He yelled, “I know you ain’t trying to cop some dope.”
I shook my head no.
“What you want, then?”
I wanted to tell him to just hit me, to beat me into a coma, but I couldn’t get the words out.
He spat on the truck and then started back to his friends. That’s when I got out. I closed the door as hard as I could. He turned around, fists up. I needed to make it worth his while, so I took a clumsy swing from too far away. He sidestepped it and threw a punch that hit me on the chin. I saw a flash of white and then found myself on the ground.
“That all you came here for?” He seemed honestly disappointed.
Blood trickled from my mouth.
He kicked me in the side, and now I was lying face up. “You want some more?” He looked back at his friends, but they just shook their heads as though this kind of thing happened all the time. “You’re crazy.” He glanced at his friends. “He’s crazy. Look at him.” He started to walk off, but I grabbed his ankle.
“C’mon,” I said.
He pulled his leg away and looked at me again, puzzled. He crouched down and stuck his face closer to mine. With his hot, beery breath on my skin, it felt as though we were sharing a moment. We could both see all the dumb things we’d ever done, all the dumb things we were ever going to do.
“I’m right here,” I said.
He blinked and swallowed, and I realized just how young he was. He could’ve been my little brother. He could’ve been my little cousin. And in my mind, I said, You understand, don’t you?
His hard look softened as he scanned my face. He seemed to hear me.
Sorry. I’m wrong to make you do this. I just need your help. I looked into his dark eyes and thought I could hear his voice now, gentler this time.
It’s okay, white boy. I can help. But just this once. He looked back at his friends. You know this won’t feel good, though, right?
Those boys over there will probably join in.
The more the merrier.
All right. He shrugged and took a step back.
I looked up at him. Thanks, by the way.
He chuckled. Don’t thank me yet. And don’t go thinking this a fair trade for what you did.
I said I wouldn’t.
Our eyes locked. Our hearts beat as one. Somehow, through it all, we even managed to smile.
Ready whenever you are.
Good. He cocked his fist. You better be.
Chris Stuck lives in Portland, Oregon. He has twice been a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, as well as a fiction fellow at the Callaloo Writing Workshops. He recently finished a collection of stories and is currently working on a novel.