H Is For Homicide Page 47

Luis rubbed his head irritably. ’’Hey, man. Take it easy.’’

’’You take it easy,’’ Raymond shot back with an apologetic glance at me. It was clear he'd pegged me as the refined one in the crowd.

When the light changed, Luis pulled out with a series of jerks that left the rear suspension bucking. Within minutes we had passed from prosperity to privation.

Our destination was a beach town a few miles south of the airport in an area tainted with poverty. To the east, the ghetto communities of Compton, South Gate, and Lynwood were rigidly subdivided into gang turfs where some fifteen to twenty homicides marred the average weekend. Here, there were only endless drab buildings decorated with angular territorial declarations thrown up by the taggers with cans of black spray paint. Wait until future cryptographers resurrect those stone tablets. Even the passing city buses were defaced, mobile messengers bearing insults from one gang to the next. The streets were littered with trash and old tires. The winos had already plucked up all the bottles and cans, anything that could be recycled in exchange for Thunderbird revenues. A dilapidated sofa sat on the curb as if waiting for a bus. Listless ghetto warriors loitered near a corner market. On the island side of the four-lane boulevard, every third storefront had been boarded up. Those still doing business were protected by steel bars across plate-glass windows papered over with advertisements.

I saw a Burger King, a Savon drugstore, a corner record shop with a big sign reading CLOSED, a post office branch with a U.S. flag drooping from its pole. On the ocean side of the street, there was a tired mix of small frame houses and boxy apartment buildings. All the yards seemed to be raw dirt surrounded by chain-link fences. The poor sections of every city I've seen have the following elements in common: sagging porches, flaking paint, grass that's tenacious if it grows at all, vacant lots filled with rubble, Pepsi-Cola signs, idle children, cars with flat tires permanently parked at the curb, abandoned houses, lethargic men whose eyes turn vacuously as you pass. Violence is a form of theater that only the disenfranchised can afford. Admission is cheap. The bill of fare is an ever-changing drama of life and death, drugs and stickups, drive-bys, retaliations, the fearfulness of mothers who look on in anguish from the sidelines. As often as not, it's the bystanders who fall prey to the spray of random bullets.

We cut inland, driving past six square blocks of housing projects. I could feel anxiety stir like a boiling sickness.

By the time we reached Raymond's place, I had no idea what part of Los Angeles we were in. We parked the Ford out in front of a three-story apartment building, across the street from an automobile salvage yard. There were probably forty units in the apartment complex, arranged in tiers around a concrete courtyard. At first glance, it didn't seem all that shabby to me. The neighborhood itself wasn't nearly as impoverished as some we'd traversed.

It was midmorning, and even with a nip still in the air, most of the apartment doors stood open. The interiors I glimpsed were crowded, overfurnished, and dismal. The televisions all seemed to be tuned to the Anglo soaps, while the radios, sitting atop the sets, played Hispanic music, curiously at odds with the gringo images. There were Halloween decorations everywhere, but some had been up so long, the pumpkins were getting soft and the crepe-paper skeletons were powdered with dust.

The four of us clambered up a rear staircase to the second floor, where we turned left, proceeding to an apartment that overlooked the street. ’’Is this your place we're going to?’’ I asked Raymond. He was walking with Bibianna, the two of them just ahead of me. Luis was bringing up the rear in case I tried to bolt.

’’This is for when we get married,’’ Raymond said with a shy glance at her. He felt in his pocket in a sudden recollection. He pulled out a key on a metal ring with a big plastic M attached, probably for Maldonado. He handed it to Bibianna. My guess was he'd meant it to be a ceremonial moment, but she shoved it in her handbag, barely honoring it with a look. Her face was stony and he seemed embarrassed that she showed no enthusiasm for matters that obviously obsessed him.

The problem with real life is there's no musical score. In movies, you know you're in danger because there's an ominous chord underlining the scene, a dissonant melodic line that warns of sharks in the water and boogermen behind the door. Real life is dead quiet, so you're never quite sure if there's trouble coming up. A possible exception is stepping into a strange apartment full of guys in hairnets. Personally, I've never understood how wearing a hairnet ever came to symbolize the baddest of the bad-asses on the street. There were five of them, all Hispanics in their late teens or early twenties, all wearing heavy wool Pendleton shirts buttoned up to their chins. Three were sitting around the kitchen table, one with his girlfriend on his lap. A second girl sat with her bare legs outstretched, tight skirt hiked up to midthigh. She was smoking a cigarette, practicing smoke rings through pouty lips painted bright red. Two guys lounging against the wall came to attention as Raymond came in the door. On the wall was a large handmade sign with ’’R.I.P.’’ at the top and Chago's name in caps below, a pair of praying hands and a crucifix drawn in the space between. Someone had tacked several snapshots of Chago on the wall nearby, along with what looked like a testimonial of some kind. Among the piles of papers on the table was a stack of homemade flyers, reproductions of the same neatly hand-lettered prose. From the somber expressions and the number of beer bottles evident, I gathered these were Chago homies and that we'd interrupted an impromptu wake. I checked for Raymond's reaction, but he had none. Did he feel no sorrow for his brother's death?

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