On a hot summer day between sixth and seventh grade, Pablo and I lounged at the shaded concrete picnic table in front of his Dominican mom’s plant-covered porch—me with my back against the rough, round edge of the table and Pablo stretched out across its diameter staring up at the long branches and leaves of the giant pecan trees that kept the sun at bay in that particular corner of our sprawling three-story apartment complex. We were waiting for Miguelito’s Sesame Street hour to end so we could go inside and watch whatever Optimus Prime had in store for Megatron and his Decepticons, when a brace-faced white boy we sometimes let hang out with us pulled into the courtyard on a shiny new dirt-bike, his mom’s Foreigner tee-shirt hanging off his bony frame.
“What’s up, y’all?” Jacob asked as he rolled up to the table.
“Not much, Jake,” I answered. “When d’you get that?”
Pablo looked over like an unimpressed cat.
“It’s a Schwinn!”
“I know how to read, man,” Pablo said as he sat up. “Lalo used to have one until he upgraded to a Diamondback.”
Lalo was Pablo’s cool older brother who taught me how to draw bubble letters, loved Prince way before Little Red Corvette and sometimes sold weed out of his mom’s apartment.
The Schwinn’s chrome body shimmered through the shade.
"Yes really," Pablo said, then jumped down from the curved bench and put his hand on the one free handle. “Here, get off.”
“I didn’t say you could ride it.”
“No one wants to ride your stupid bike.”
Jacob glanced at me, then turned back to Pablo, holding his ground.
“Then why do you want it.”
“To see how much it weighs, pendejo.”
Jacob paused again, then relented and got up off his new prized possession. Pablo put one hand around the neck, and grabbed the seat with the other, and lifted it six inches off the ground.
“Yeah, my brother’s is a lot lighter,” he said looking at me. “Gets a ton of air, right L.J.?”
“Mm-hmm,” I lied, never having seen such elevation.
“Oh yeah?” Jacob shot back. “Well, I bet I’ve got something that'll get us a lot higher than any old Diamondback.”
Sensing something much cooler than cartoon robots bent on world domination, the pre-teen tentacle inside my brown corduroys reached out to the world as Jacob swung his dead dad’s Vietnam rucksack onto the picnic table and scanned the courtyard for grown-up eyes.
* * *
Pablo’s mom was always home and mine always worked, so we went to my place on the other end of the dilapidated Hunter’s Run Apartments to further inspect the goods. I closed and locked the heavy, scuffed- up door behind us.
“Break it out,” Pablo commanded.
“Yeah, lets’ see it!”
“Alright, alright.” Jacob took the big zip-lock bag out of the backpack and held it up against the cheap chandelier light. It was full of meaty chunks of old school Mexican brick-weed and three quarter-sized wafers that reminded me of my first communion the summer before.
I was in a black and white tuxedo, repeatedly standing, kneeling, and sitting as I waited to drink of His blood and eat of His flesh, when my bored but willing hands happened upon a chewed up piece of gum stuck beneath one of the church’s long wooden benches. Then, as if guided by the Devil himself, I rolled up the bright bit of orange Bubblicious and flicked it into the wiry black hair of the nicest of the twenty or so little Chicanos in my CCE class—a sin I neglected to report at my one and only confession to that skinny old gringo who soon after got popped for raping the little brown altar boys of his barrio flock.
“Holy shit!” Pablo said, his beady coffee black eyes bugging out against his taut, Caribbean skin.
“Where’d you get all this stuff, Jake?” I asked.
“Mom,” Jacob guffawed through his rubber-banned braces.
I shook my head slowly and looked over at Pablo.
“I told you he showed me trash bags full under her bed last week.”
“I’ll never doubt you again,” I said shaking my head slowly.
We chuckled as Jacob unsealed the zip lock and dumped the dope on the smoked glass of the dining table, a lonely relic from Mom’s more successful real estate days. Each of us got a third of the pile and one of the big, white wafers.
“What are these?” I asked.
“They’re called three days beans,” Jacob answered.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Mandrex,” Jacob answered.
“Oh shit! Those are the ones that guy brought to Sylvia’s party,” Pablo said. “Remember, Joe?”
A few weeks before, one of Pablo’s sister’s friends, a flirty eighth grader with bouncy blond hair, seemed to have eyes for me. But then this tall muscular cholo—a perennial sophomore at the high school up the road—sauntered into the party with his well-pressed chinos, a tight-fitting wife-beater, and a neatly folded red bandanna hanging over his shoulder. He gave her one of those big horse-pills after bragging about taking six himself, then stole her into the woods bordering the complex to do things my pining, wounded libido could hardly yet imagine.
But now I was the one with the drugs and bandana, not to mention a stainless steal pocketknife with which to play pachuco.
“So, what are we gonna do?” Jacob asked.
“Let’s eat these and go up to Shannon’s,” Pablo answered.
“Radical!” Jacob said.
Shannon’s Surf and Sport was the first skate shop to open on the west side of Houston, located at Memorial City mall.
“Orale!” I seconded.
* * *
For all his lameness, by the spring leading up to that sweltering Houston summer, Jacob had introduced us to some local skate punks who had built their own rickety half-pipe in the nearby woods.
The ramp itself was six feet on one side and five on the other and covered with all kinds of artless graffiti that said things like “SHUT UP AND SKATE!” and “CANCER RULES!” and a backward swastika with a slash through it.
And someone was always ready to drop in from the lip as soon as another dude’s run was done. They always played loud punk-rock and smoked lots of weed and sometimes, if they were chillin’, they’d let Pablo and I borrow their boards and give us pointers on how not to eat too much shit and then laughed their asses off when we did.
We liked their gruffness and loud, aggressive music, and skating was so fun and different and new that we quickly went from little lowrider-wannabees to skatepunks-in-the-making. We even had a few Bones Brigade and Town and Country T-shirts from Jacob’s throw away pile. But no bikes or boards to speak of.
“So how we gonna get to the mall?” Jacob asked between the gulps of water it took him to force the body of Christ down his long ostrich neck.
“We’ll walk,” Pablo joked.
“To Memorial City?” Jacob guffawed as he slammed the half-empty glass onto the glass of my mom’s fancy tabletop. “That’s far.”
“Hey, be careful with that! My mom would kill me for even a scratch!”
“No, stupid,” Pablo said. “We’ll take the bus.”
“Oh. I’ve never ridden the Metro.”
“Really?” I asked.
“I guess there’s a first time for everything,” Pablo said, then he took the glass from Jacob and washed down the wafer.
I followed suit and then we bagged up and pocketed our stashes and went and stood at the sunbaked bus stop across the street from the leasing office. A little later, a refrigerated black, red, white, blue and black city bus took us on a fifteen-minute ride to the mall. As we crossed beneath I-10, I rang the bell and we got off on the feeder between the highway and the big mall’s giant parking lot.
“Y’all feel anything?” I asked as we walked toward one of the mall’s main entrances, a smoky glass façade that reached up at least thirty or forty feet toward the cloudless sky.
“Nope,” chortled Jacob.
“Not a thing,” Pablo said, echoing Jacob’s goofy laugh and looking over at me with a sluggish smile.
“Yeah, me neither,” I said, suddenly feeling the ground beneath my feet give way with each step, like a waterbed full of wet cement. I stumbled a bit and laughed, then found my footing and looked up ahead at Pablo and Jacob traversing the same shaky ground.
“Woah,” I said and turned back to see the bus tumbling down the white hot frontage road like one of those milk cartons with the missing kids on it. I knew things weren’t quite right but kept pace with my friends anyway.
* * *
Shannon’s was a blur, but I managed to put ten dollars toward my Powell Peralta Steve Caballero skateboard, and Pablo bought a new Rat Bones T-shirt and wanted to go to the record store to get a tape we had recently heard at the ramp.
The cover art was as punk as it gets: a crucified gold Jesus nailed to an origami cross of dollar bills on a silver plaque with the words “In God We Trust, Inc.” scrolled across the top.
“That’s fucking rad!”
And then we were in the food court stumbling toward a table; me with a slice of pizza, Pablo and Jacob with Chinese combo plates. I fell into a chair, dropped my slice of pepperoni on the ground, then leaned over to pick it up and glimpsed something scarlet from the corner of my eye. I thought little of it until I sat back up in my chair and saw those three letters, H.P.D., flashing silver and white in the bright lights of the food court, pinned to the blue collar of a stern-faced gringo with a utility belt loaded with weapons, handcuffs and a walkie-talkie. His partner, a much younger Chicano, stood to his right, flanked by two older white security guards, both carrying big black flashlights and wearing the red blazers mall cops used to wear.
“How’s everybody doin’ today?”
I put my slice down and looked over at Pablo, who held on to his egg roll as he stood up from his plastic chair.
The young cop pushed him back down into his seat.
“But officer I was just gonna--” Pablo protested and stood up again.
The cop pushed him back down and said, “I said have a seat.”
Pablo replied, “But, sir, I…” and then stood up again, this time dropping his egg roll on his seat.
“I said sit the fuck down!” the cop commanded and pushed him back down onto the egg roll. Jacob and I busted out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” asked the old cop.
“Oh,” Jacob said through giggles, “nothing.”
“That’s right, little man. I see nothing here to laugh about.”
“You’re right, sir,” Jacob said with his crooked smile. “Absolutely nothing.”
And we both cracked up all over again.
Pablo looked down at the floor, his swarthy skin turning pallid, as if all the oxygen was being sucked out of his body.
“Now stand up and turn around.”
“Hey, L.J.?” Jacob asked.
“Put your hands behind your back.”
“'Last call for alcohol.'”
I continued the Jello Biafra quote as they clicked the cold metal of the cuffs around our skinny wrists. “'Last call for your freedom of speech.'”
“I weep for the future,” one of the security guards said.
“'Happy hour is now enforced by law.'”
“I said move!”
Jacob and I kept snickering as the men paraded us to the center of the mall and turned the corner of that long, yellow brick hallway I’d always wondered about.
Pablo, already familiar with the blinding brightness of that rectangular tunnel, began to sob.
* * *
They took us to a small office with a corkwood desk and confiscated my weed, knife, and money, along with Pablo and Jacob’s stashes, and then marched us out into the parking lot to a blue and white squad car that turned right onto I-10 East.
“Man, where y’all takin’ us?” Jacob asked.
“Where do you think, wise guy? Downtown.”
“Man, that’s a long way with these cuffs being so tight,” Jacob lamented.
Pablo wept quietly, shaking his head every now and again. For the first time since I had known the two, Jacob seemed way cooler.
“They are too tight,” I seconded.
“Well, y’all should of thought of that before you got all whacked out and went to the mall,” said the white officer, shaking his head as he veered us off the highway.
“What are you boys on anyway?” asked his partner.
“Mandrex,” Pablo confessed between sniffles.
“Are you kidding me?”
“Nope,” Jacob answered with more than a little pride.
“You know what those things can do to you?” asked the white cop.
“We have some idea,” I said in my best smart-ass voice.
“No, stupid,” he said. Then the two cops made up some bullshit story—at least it smelt like b.s.—about some kid who’d taken one of those and threw his dog off a roof, then went down after him. The dog never walked again. The kid died.
I could almost see his partner’s smirk as they drove us into a giant parking garage somewhere in the middle of Downtown Houston, Texas. We were taken up through the bowels of a drab government building, patted down beneath fluorescent lights, then ordered to take off our shoes and socks and then told to put them back on. Then they led us to a holding tank where other delinquent boys, unlucky or dumb enough to have gotten caught breaking the law, were awaiting their uncertain, if predictable futures.
“What are you in for?” Pablo, no longer crying, asked this slightly older Chicano kid with a peach fuzz mustache.
“Ah, man. My cousin was driving us around in this hot ride and got pulled over like a fucking dumbass.”
“Ah, man. That sucks,” Pablo sympathized. Now that we were among other delinquents, Pablo re-assumed his more natural position as our alpha.
“And it’s my birthday.”
“For reals?” I asked.
Among other Chicanos, we hid our new surfer boy accents.
“Yeah, vato,” he said, shaking his head, “some fucking birthday. What’s with your homeboy?”
Jacob was lying face down on one of the benches along the wall and had thrown up on the floor, apparently only having ingested little more than wafer and water that day.
“Oh, he’ll be alright,” Pablo said. “We took some magic beans that fucking laid us out.”
“Mandrex,” I said.
“They’re like Quaaludes,” Pablo said, “only they last for three days.”
“Oh. My cousin took some of those once. Fucked him up good.”
“Did he throw his dog off a roof and then go down after him?” I asked.
“That’s what the cops told us in the car.”
“Oh. Yeah, cops’ll say anything to get you to talk.”
“Totally,” I said, my accent slipping.
“Did y’all tell them anything?”
“Hell no!” Pablo lied.
“What about your cousin?” I asked, hoping he hadn’t noticed my other persona.
“Oh, he just threw up all over himself.”
“Like Jake over there,” I said, and we all leaned over for a better look at the crestfallen jailbird who’d apparently had little more than water to eat that day.
“Much worse,” he said with a wry grin. “My cuz had a ton of menudo for breakfast that day.”
“Oooh!” Pablo and I cringed.
Then the lock of the solid steel door unlatched with a heavy clink, and a husky woman’s voice called out, “Joseph Garcia Junia’,” like she was checking roll.
* * *
I followed the tall, heavyset black lady as she labored down the hall to a room where I was ordered to roll the fingertips of my right hand onto an inkpad, then onto a sheet of paper with two rows of five squares on it. Then she gave me a brown paper napkin to wipe that hand off and told me to repeat the process with my left hand. Then she sat me down at her desk to get my version of the story before leading me out to a hallway where Pablo and Jacob sat waiting, their heads hovering just above their pre-teen bodies like a couple of half-empty party balloons.
“Alright now, you three gentleman come with me.”
We followed her out to the main lobby of the Juvenile Delinquent Division of the City of Houston, where the three brown, tan and white scowls of our own personal fates awaited us. All women. All single. All scorned.
I shuffled reluctantly around the hard marble top counter as Mom’s eyes shot daggers into my skull, and I suddenly understood why the toughest kid I had ever known—a hell-raiser of the first order and guide to my forever-lacking sense of manhood—started crying like a little bitch when we turned the corner to that hallway that always seemed to beckon boys like us.
* * *
The way Mom drove her ex-boyfriend’s paint stained van back to the burbs—my best friend and I sliding around on the rusty wheel wells, his purse-lipped mom strapped to the windowless passenger seat—I somehow knew things would never be the same between us.
As for me and Pablo, we were just getting started.
Oscar Rodriguez moved to San Miguel de Allende in ‘08 to start work on his thinly veiled memoir, “God’s Green Earth.” Back in Austin, he just published the title track/chapter in the summer issue of the online journal, Flumes…a short twelve years later.