Mario and Cheryse
After midnight the foggy streets of San Francisco were like a foreign
country. The night was so dead quiet, the hookers had spread out from the
Tenderloin and into the decent people's worlds, and now were promenading
across from the Cliff Hotel. And still no johns were striking at the bait.
Last time I'd seen San Francisco night life this quiet was the last time
an Alcoholic Anonymous convention hit town.
A beat cop who quit the streets to become a junior high school teacher
once told me what hooking is. He said the word "prostitute" comes from a
Latin word that means "to stare," and hookers stare for hours. Time passes
slowly when you stare for a living. When you're new to it, the hours go by
like years, and then you grow used to it, and the years go by like hours,
until one day you realize that what you're staring for is what's long
I did a stake-out at Hooker Heaven, the corner of O'Farrell and
Leavenworth. I parked behind a Volvo with an old bumper sticker on the
rear fender that read, "Die, Yuppie Scum!" He was another individual
unclear on the concept.
Time dragged like a legless dog. Now and again vice cops cruised by in
their unmarked cars that everybody who works the streets instantly
recognizes, and every-so-often beat cops came by, swapped lies and
bullshit with old regulars, and memorized new faces for next time. The
streets went on and on as they always have. Seventy minutes into the
stake-out I watched a homeless man fight his shadow. He fought dirty. It
still came out a draw.
Two hours into the stake-out, I saw the girl again.
She was holding up a building, just one of the many hookers scattered
like fireplugs around the neighborhood. She had changed clothes. Now she
wore a red skin-tight dress and red high heels and a thin parka. From my
vantage point, her fourteen year old eyes were cold-blooded and ruthless.
I watched her work the street. I watched a homeless man give a
calculating look at a woman he couldn't afford. I watched her flip him off
when his back was turned. I watched her get into a purple Camaro. The
purple Camaro drove a hundred yards, then parked in an alley. Ah, the old
handjob in an alley.
Don't ask me the going rate. Just because I work on the streets doesn't
mean I live on them. The last time I was curious, I was new to the
streets, and spending money that way struck me as foolish and deadly.
But it was handjob interruptus when a San Francisco garbage truck came
down the alley the wrong way. Like all garbage trucks in the City and
County of San Francisco, after dark he drove like he had the right-of-way
over all but emergency vehicles. He was determined to go the wrong way
down the alley, and no out-of-towner scoring a handjob was going to slow
him down or keep him from his appointed rounds.
The garbage truck leaned on its horn, and the sound was like a
locomotive blowing through a cloistered nunnery. He had a route, a
schedule, and zero sympathy for anyone parked in his path. He blasted his
horn and hit his high beams, and his high beams lit up the purple Camaro's
interior like klieg lights at a Hollywood premiere. He blared his horn, he
sat on his horn until all the apartment dwellers above the alley on either
side were screaming for the purple Camaro to back out and let the garbage
truck through so they could go back to sleep, goddammit! The purple Camaro
had no choice but to back out of the alley. Once he pulled backwards into
the street, and the garbage truck had swung around him, loudly cursing him
all the way, the driver of the purple Camaro kicked Cheryse Geneva's
skinny ass out.
Cheryse Geneva stood on the street again, staring at the long shadows
that were everywhere. She looked as desperate and lonely as the country &
western music sounded that was coming from the deserted laundromat behind
Time passed like a gallstone. I watched two transvestites kiss. I
watched pigeons pecking at roadkill. I watched a drunk in a wheelchair
cruising down the middle lane of O'Farrell Street.
The night got colder. Hotel flags were snapping to attention from the
winds off the ocean. The winds pressed her parka against her dress. She
stood at the bus stop like a victim waiting for a villain. She held hot
coffee from a fast food outlet and sipped it as if it were the Holiest
An empty bus after midnight came down the street and stopped in front
of her. The bus had a placard on its flank that said Use Condoms. She
walked from the bus stop, huddled in her whore's dress, her thin parka.
A drunk got off the bus, looked around and licked his lips at the sight
of her, and tried to hustle her. He looked twenty-two years old. He was
apple-cheeked and had blonde hair. Had the California surfer look down
pat. He probably lived in blue jeans and T-shirts. And he tried to hustle
her. But something was wrong, and he wasn't right, and she tried brushing
him off. He tried copping a feel, and she pushed him aside and off her.
Snarling and growling, the drunk came at her with hatred and blood-lust.
He didn't see her whip out her stun gun and zap him.
She stunned him good. He lay on the sidewalk, clutching his face, and
howled with the misery and the pain of a wounded animal. She zapped him
again, just a quickie, to scatter his brains, then left him quivering
alone on the cold concrete. She walked uphill, into the shadowy recesses
of a residence hotel, and watched him drag his maimed body downhill. She
stayed long after he was gone.
When she no longer felt hunted, she came out from the shadows like a
coyote comes down from the hills. Nobody noticed, or seemed to care, and
quickly all was quiet and cold again. In the long hours of night, what is
Stiff gusts of wind began blowing in before Last Call, and those
nightly breezes off the ocean turned mean-spirited. Still not a dollar or
a dime to be found. Work the streets every night, and you know soon enough
some nights are like that. Lonely nights, when the only thing on the
streets is the wind.
She had a long night of nothing happening. She worked to 3 AM, an hour
past Last Call, until even the drunk bartenders had found their way home.
Then she flagged a cab and left the streets.
The cab took Jones to Golden Gate Avenue, then crossed Market, and took
6th to Harrison. Then the cab climbed onto the 101 freeway south at 7th
Street. Only a handful of cars were up there at this hour. The cab and I
rode awhile through a sleeping city, then we both left the 101 freeway
south at the Candlestick exit. But we didn't hang left and cross over 101
to reach the 'Stick or Hunter's Point. Instead we bore right and took Old
Bayshore Boulevard and the Cow Palace turn-off that led down into the
housing projects that were Vivisection Valley. We wound down the long
curving road until Old Bayshore Boulevard was jabbed in the side by San
Bruno Boulevard. The cab didn't have the green light, but goosed itself
through the yellow light, and I caught the red light in all her
car-stopping glory. I gritted my teeth and watched the cab turn onto
Visitacion Avenue and disappear.
Once I got on Visitacion, the empty cab came from a street four blocks
up, and he passed me going the other way like a bat out of hell; he was
deadheading back downtown, I guessed, or maybe out to the airport. Sure, a
cab is like a hooker; it only makes money when it's on the streets. But
answering a radio call down here was downright dangerous, and the fastest
way to die in San Francisco was to pick up somebody here off the streets
who was flagging you down.
The fourth city block led directly to Vivisection Towers. The front
doors were locked and chained, but a service entrance on one side gaped
like an open sore. I looked all around, I saw no signs of life anywhere,
but that was no comfort.
I guess I was both amazed and depressed. Mario Rosales's last best
place to hide was Vivisection Towers. He and his girl friend were
squatters in a derelict housing project. Boy, had they hit rock-bottom.
The service entrance door moved with the wind. I couldn't imagine
anyone in his right mind walking through that door. Behind that door death
Any cop will show you dozens, maybe hundreds, in the City. The
dispatcher gives them a call at this address, that address, any one of
those addresses, and the cops drive up, stop, stare, lock their doors and
wonder why they should go open that door, why they should step inside,
wonder why they should hear that door clang! shut behind them.
They think about their families, try to remember when they last kissed
their babies good-bye, wonder if that was too long ago to count, and
wonder if they should take this final fatal stroll.
They know the chance they take. They have done it before, swallowed
their pride and their fright, and walked that lonely walk through those
long shadows on a deserted street on a moonless night and walked through
They didn't die then. They might not now.
They might not now.
I looked around to see if any of the long shadows had sprouted arms or
legs or handguns. This was the heart of Vivisection Valley, if it had a
heart. And what was on these streets at this time of night was no
different than those punks who killed Old Pete and tried killing his son.
I should go home, I thought. I could have a couple beers, watch Movies
'Til Dawn, I'd be fine and dandy.
I felt I stood out. Hell, I thought, I wouldn't stand out more if I
were bucknaked blindfolded holding a handful of hundred dollar bills.
Christ, I was about as subtle as a blowtorch lighting a bowl of rock
I didn't look like a potential crack customer. No, I looked like a
sucker. A dumb jerk saying, steal my car and dump my body in an alley kind
of sucker. These jokers here could kill me and never remember me in the
I should just drive off and forget everything. I reached down and
twisted the ignition key, and my car started right up. I should throw 'er
in gear and get the hell outa here. Then I had another thought. If I leave
my car here, it might not be here when I come out. If I came out. A C note
says you won't, I told myself.
I remembered the last time I had been here. A red Eldorado had been
parked in front of those front doors to hell. It had a busted right
taillight. I stared at the memory of that Eldorado and saw again the two
bodies thrown inside its trunk like golf bags.
Why should I enter Visitacion Towers?
I shouldn't. It would be like walking into a dragon's mouth. But I kept
thinking about how Mario Rosales was the only eyewitness to whatever had
happened here five nights ago.
Suppose I did go inside the Towers. Whatever happened in there was
final. There was no way out. I could expect no help. Paramedics wouldn't
go in there. The Fire Department would let it burn. The cops left their
cruisers locked and wore bullet-proof vests when they swept the building
with their riot guns and their pepper sprays. The crews on the city
garbage trucks wore bullet-proof vests until even they refused to come
Together, my Browning 9 and I went in Visitacion Towers. Smashed and
ravaged and charred and splintered and gutted and burned out and looted.
Doesn't even matter when all this was done here, I suppose. That this
housing project from Hell would end ruined like this was a foregone
conclusion the day the cornerstone was set in concrete.
I don't know why the electricity was still on; maybe some squatter had
reconnected the disconnected. There were still electric lights in a few
hallways, though most hallways were dark from stolen bulbs and broken
fixtures. Gang graffiti was scrawled on every surface. Plaster hung in
shreds from the ceiling.
The elevator was out, of course, and it stank like somebody had
recently taken a dump in there. I took the stairs as quietly as I could. I
went up slowly, checking out each floor, one at a time, and made my way up
toward the penthouse suites.
Broken glass and garbage were littered in every corridor and entirely
filled some rooms. In some corridors there was a foot of rubbish, and I
had to kick my way from one end to the other. Target practice with
automatic weapon fire had put bullet holes in many of the walls and doors.
As I walked, I saw my breath coming out in front of me in little icy
clouds. This hell on earth was ice-cold. There was a natural break in the
coastal range here, and the same icy summer winds that made Candlestick
Park world famous blew through these broken windows first. Fog was
actually visibly curling in some corridors like wraiths from the
netherworld left behind to haunt the living.
On the third floor I heard a woman's low voice. She was wheedling and
dealing with a dealer. She had a hand gun to trade for a rock of cocaine.
She told him she had found it behind an after-hours bar twenty minutes
ago. The dealer wanted to know how hot the gun was. When she couldn't tell
him, he told her to dump it in a storm drain. I kept prowling onward
because these two weren't my prey.
More signs of squatters on the fourth floor, on the side away from the
street. The toilets had long been smashed or stolen, and now people shit
where they could here. I was careful where I walked.
On the seventh floor I heard a woman's shrill voice. She was angry. I
crept close and saw a mother berating her mentally retarded daughter for
wasting all the mayonnaise. The mother must have weighed a hundred pounds.
Her daughter was in her late forties, was weeping, and must have weighed
I reached the ninth floor. Down at the end of the hallway a luminous
glow came from a Coleman camp light. A shadowy figure was lighting
candles. I saw a cooler near the window. Beside it was a stained foam pad
big enough for two sleeping bags. On the other side of the pad, a small
microwave oven sat on an overturned cantaloupe crate.
I saw Mario Rosales. I came closer, and I saw the fresh stitches on the
ugly red wound on his neck from the bullet that had narrowly missed his
jugular vein. He was wearing a T-shirt under an oversized flannel shirt,
and baggy pants he could hide a litter of puppies in. I see kids like him
hanging out in the malls and movie theaters all over California. Good
kids, all of them, or almost all of them. Restless and eager, they had
wants and hopes. And I hesitated.
I reminded myself that Mario Rosales was all punk. That he was a
fugitive and the cops wanted him for murder. That he had no conscience and
was all trouble. I tightened my grip on my Browning, took a deep breath,
and steeled myself for trouble.
I saw Cheryse Geneva up close. Her blue zombie eyes and her cornsilk
hair were in my face, breathing hard on me, and my Browning was useless
with my wrist grabbed like this and stretched out away from her.
"Que pasa, hombre?" she said. She was pale and tight-lipped. She
smelled of fresh strawberries.
I made no move against her. She held a stun gun inches from my face.
She punched it for several seconds, and a blue arc of electricity streaked
out of the dark.
"You're the boss," I said.
She took my Browning. She held it like a brick and smashed me in the
side of the face, and when I jumped for her throat, she zapped me down to
the concrete. I stayed down because for the longest time I couldn't
breathe. I told myself I'd pitch her out an open window given half a
chance. We were nine floors up. That was high enough.
Once I was okay again, she held the gun in one hand and the zapper in
the other, and I rose to my feet like a ballerina amid broken glass. She
pushed me into the camp light's glow. Mario Rosales heard us coming.
Startled, he jumped to his feet.
Mario hissed. "What's he doing here?"
Cheryse frisked me, picked my pockets, field-stripped my wallet, and
stole nearly two hundred dollars of my money. "He saw me downtown
working," she said. "He must of followed me."
He was bigger than I had remembered. His shoulders were broader and his
chest was deeper than I had remembered. Lots of red meat and vitamins keep
making the next generations bigger. Hell, he was fourteen, but he looked
seventeen, maybe eighteen. Maybe he just had a growth spurt.
Mario Rosales swallowed hard and steeled himself to do harm. He stuck a
shiny new Glock 17 in my face. "I should blow you away," he said. That's
when he actually thought about what he was saying. "I didn't want to blow
away nobody," he regretted. And his voice cracked. Nothing like puberty in
a gunman to make me tread more cautiously.
And yet . . . And yet I thought I saw him differently, with new eyes.
The kid was standing in front of me, but his eyes were huddled in a
corner, like a pile of dirty laundry that missed the hamper toss, like a
homeless woman huddling in a sleeping bag to stay warm.
No one who has ever known me has ever accused me of being a pollyanna.
I've worked the streets long enough to know pollyannas on the streets die
quicker than first lieutenants on the battlefield. And yet . . .
He was still a kid. He still had the wide eyes of a young boy who was
now neck-deep in more trouble than he had ever been in before. He was
I'm the father of two boys. I looked at him--into him--and I saw my
boys. In both cases, I saw boys growing up without a father in the house.
I pushed aside my own regrets and pushed aside my own better judgment and
concentrated on the boy at hand.
"What's the real story, Mario? What happened outside here?"
"We gotta blow, Mario, 'fore someone else finds us," she said.
I got bold and up-front with him. "I came to help you, Mario. Help you
see why you gotta turn yourself in, before some nasty cop with a hard-on
for you blows away you or Cheryse."
She banged me across the back of my head. I think she wanted to bang
some sense into my head. Thank God she didn't have the same upper body
strength as Mario. She could have killed me if she had the strength to do
what she wanted done.
"We got to take care of you, Mario," I said, not daring to slow down
the jive. "Your grandmother made me promise to get hold of you and save
"My grandmother," he said. His eyes said he didn't trust me.
"She loves you and wants you home."
"I ain't going home to her!"
"Don't you want to think for a moment about going back home?"
He thought I was nuts. "Fuck Rehab," he said. "I been there three
"What do you got here that's so much better than home?" I dared.
Cheryse rolled her eyes. She knew I was a fool. A growl came from her
throat. She wanted me circumcised with a chainsaw.
His jawline went stubborn and set. "It's okay here."
"I talked with your grandmother," I said. "She loves you." Watching his
disbelief grow, I felt my spirits sink further. But I pressed on. "She
doesn't want you dead, Mario. She wants you alive and smiling and healthy
and sitting beside her even if it's just Visiting Hours. She doesn't care
if you're wearing a red jump suit and shackles. She loves you and wants
you alive and wants to fight for you. You stay here, you get cremated by
Welfare money and your ashes get dumped in Potter's Field and all she gets
is a lousy photograph on top of the TV set to remember you by, and she
wants more than that, Mario. She loves you."
He flinched. For an instant he was a kid in pain getting chewed out by
an adult, and he blinked fast, and the kid in pain was gone, replaced by
an android's smooth features, the kind I saw all the time in Juvenile
"What about his mom?" Cheryse Geneva asked.
"His mom's in jail for a two year old burglary charge for which she
failed to appear."
Mario didn't seem to care about that. "You don't know my grandmother."
"You live by Point Avisadero. On a clear day you got a view of
downtown. You got a rusty bike with two flat tires chained to her front
porch, and your grandmother's got a plastic leg that screws on and off."
Cheryse was taken aback. "Gross!"
They didn't exactly release me. More like, they stopped holding me so
tightly. I had a chance to take a closer look around their scatter. They
were camped out in a squatter's apartment. I thought about what it must be
like coming down from a drug-high and finding yourself here. Being
straight here was like living in the House of Usher on a bad day.
"Why here?" I asked.
He gestured behind him. "That toilet still flushes."
I was sympathetic. Mario Rosales was a fourteen year old who had lived
too hard and seen too much. Ambushed by drug dealers. Patched up and then
snuck out of the hospital. On top of all that, now he was a cornered
fugitive living on Vienna sausage from a can and cold PopTarts while his
girl friend had to go out hooking. Ask him what he was most afraid of. A
gang out to get him? The cops who wanted him? T'aint easy being Mario
Rosales today. No wonder he had holed up here, exhausted.
I looked at his lady love Cheryse. Like most teenagers, she acted
sullen, and she reminded me of a gargoyle on a ledge above a cathedral. I
had no problem with that. Teenagers are small children with big hormones.
"D'you get coked up here?" I asked her.
"Can't get it," Cheryse said. "No money."
I didn't bother asking if they'd get cracked up if they could buy some.
Crack would make anybody forget how ugly and short their life looked here.
I was suspicious. "Why did you shoot those two white guys?"
I saw the flesh whiten on Mario Rosales's throat wound.
"He didn't kill nobody!" Cheryse said.
"I was set-up."
Yeah, you and everybody else.
"Who hired you to shoot 'em?" I asked.
"Nobody," Mario said.
"Who hired you to shake down the old man and his kid?"
"Who was the boss?"
"You talk about Mad Dog," Cheryse told him.
He wet his lips. "He's dead. I saw him buy it."
"Who was Mad Dog?" I asked.
Cheryse told me, "Mad Dog was a bastard man. He killed a man with a
runny nose for snorting his powder. Let that fucker die forever!"
"He sold rock all over the City," Mario said.
"But he bought it here at the Towers," I said.
"Yeah." His eyes backed away from me.
I surprised him. "I don't give a shit who sold it to him, or who he
turned around and sold it to." I gave pause, to start another angle. "What
went down outside here?"
"What went down . . . " He swallowed hard, not wanting to confess more
than what he needed, but wanting desperately to get it all out. The effort
to both spill his guts and keep his yap shut left him speechless and
"--was a carjacking?" I asked
"The car was free to us, man, so we took it!"
"You were just out scoring rock," I disbelieved.
"You're not straight with me," I threatened.
"I swear, yes."
"Why did you kill the old dude in the trunk?" I asked.
"Never knew he was in the trunk, man."
"Who hired you?"
"I got no job," Mario Rosales said. "I wasn't doing nothing!" he
insisted. "I was following Mad Dog. I was there to look big, look tough. I
wanted to sit in the car, play with the buttons on the dashboard. He made
me come upstairs here and watch him buy rock."
"You were s'posed to look like back-up muscle?"
"Yeah! Everything inside goes down cool. We make the buy, they're all
friends, high-fives and see ya soon, bro. We get outside, and the air
lights up with bullets flying at us. I got shot, he gets killed, I go to
"What was Mad Dog's real name?"
"I don't know. He liked being called Mad Dog."
What can you say about anybody who likes calling himself Mad Dog? The
dumb fuck defames himself. Just asking to be shot down in the streets.
"Who drove the Eldorado to the Towers?"
"I did," the boy said.
"Is that how you got involved?"
"I'm the one that parked it there."
I grinned. "Wrong spot, right?"
"I didn't know the space was reserved," Mario Rosales swore. "I would
never park there, 'cept it was empty."
"How come you drove?"
"I was the designated driver."
"Fourteen years old, right?"
He had a lopsided grin. "I don't do rock when I drive. Mad Dog and the
guys can get fucked up and still get home okay. Somebody gotta make sure
we get home okay."
"Where did you start off from?"
"From the Sunshine Apartments."
I kept cool. "Mad Dog lived there?"
"That's one place where he sells. He got a place there, another one on
Rose Alley, and another on Dolores."
"How did you get the Eldorado?"
"We found it. It was double-parked in front of Mad Dog's car with its
windows down, the key was still in the ignition, the engine running. There
was a raggedy twenty dollar bill on the floor mat. We check it out, shit,
we took it for a ride." The equation was simple, in his mind. "Free car.
"Did you know the old white dude who owned it?"
"I seen him at Sunshine Apartments. Old white dude."
"Did he ever talk to you?"
"What did you think when you saw his Caddy there?"
He puzzled over that. Finally: "Free car. Free ride."
"Did you check the trunk before you drove it?"
He scowled like I was crazy, but he spoke wistfully. "You always check
your trunk before you drive a car?"
"Did you shoot him?"
"Do you know who did?"
I thought back to the first time I came down here, the scene of the
crime that it was, walking through it with Captain Banagan. The red
Eldorado with the two bodies in the trunk. I kept seeing that busted
taillight in my mind. Let the cops pull it over. And I saw how the deal
went down. It was all slicker than ice on glass.
"You were set up," I said.
He agreed. "I was set up."
Why did I believe they were set up?
The busted taillight.
Cops love busted taillights. A busted taillight legitimizes stopping
John Q. Public and checking him out. Ted Bundy got caught because cops
stopped him for his taillight. The busted taillight is probably the most
cost effective piece of cop equipment cops got in the never-ending fight
The rockhounds were just patsies. Too stupid for words and therefore
dumb enough to take a fall. They went joyriding in a stolen car. They were
supposed to get stopped by the police. Did you know you had a taillight
busted? May we see your registration please? Please step out of the car.
Pop that trunk, son. And then they would go away to prison forever. A
deaf, dumb and blind DA could put those fools away. Who would believe
them? Even the Public Defender's Office wouldn't.
"Why did you run from San Francisco General Hospital?"
"The electric chair," Mario said.
"It's the gas chamber in this state."
He knew it was something evil. "I'm sitting there, and nobody told me
nothing. They told me who I was, and I was in trouble. A million dollars
bail! I told them they was wrong. They said I was lying. I was causing
trouble. They know what I done. They wasn't listening when I said I didn't
Cheryse was watching him, her chin trembling, fighting back the tears,
having a cigarette.
"Who set you up?" I asked.
"I don't know who."
I snickered. Who wouldn't want to get rid of Mad Dog? Everybody wants
to get rid of the rock man. Cops. Other dealers. Scammers. Bangers.
Rockheads looking for free rock. Straights.
"Did he have any face-to-face enemies?"
"One he talked about. Some chump he fucked from South Bay, San Jose
maybe. Mad Dog got him busted because he owed the chump money and didn't
want to pay him."
"He framed the guy?"
"Yeah. The guy got San Bruno time, not hard time, but he was gone six,
seven months. That's something."
I called bullshit on that. "Misdemeanor time anybody can do standing on
their heads. Snitching on anything less than felony time is stupid."
Mario glowered, a habit he probably didn't know he had. "The dude was
s'pose to do long time, be a three time loser and never get parole, but
the DA dropped it down in plea bargaining, 'cause the jail's too full with
"So Mad Dog's snitch didn't hold."
"Man, it snapped."
"What was the chump's name?"
"Mad Dog called him the Spaniard. He wasn't Spanish, just another
Mexican that got some money, so now he called himself Spanish, not
Mexican. Don't know his name. One tough dude, I heard. Mad Dog was scared
"What did he look like?"
"Mean." Mario was glum. "I never seen him."
"Where does Cheryse come into it?"
I saw how they looked at each other, and I saw hopeless love that was
doomed from the start.
She spoke up. "Yo te quiero mucho," she told him.
I swallowed hard. "La mona, aunque se vista de seda," I quoted. I broke
off seeing Mario's face in obvious pain. "Where'd you two lovebirds meet?"
"We was in Juvie together. Then I seen him a prisoner over at Mad
Surprised, I looked at Cheryse again. "Why were you there?"
Mario talked for her. "Mad Dog made women have sex with him to score
rock. He never gave no free drugs. Her pimp wanted some rock, so him and
Mad Dog made Cheryse have sex with me, and they watch us. She help me 'scape
once, but I still got caught and had to go back."
"How did you help him escape?"
She was proud of herself. "Broke a window."
According to her, Mario was held captive by Mad Dog, allowed a single
meal a day, and had to sleep in a room whose windows were boarded up and
whose door was often nailed shut.
"How long were you a prisoner? Three months, right?"
He nodded. "If I 'scaped again, Mad Dog said he knew where my mother
lived. Where could I go? I don't try no more."
"Your mom and the cops say you sold crack," I said to the boy.
"He sold crack so his mom can keep her house and not be homeless."
"I liked the dough," he admitted. "But if I don't sell rock, I don't
They waited for me to answer.
I caught on. I was an adult, a grown-up, and the children were waiting
for me to answer them. We all knew they wouldn't listen to me and my
words. They knew an adult's answer was no solution to their problems. They
knew adult answers involved too much up-front pain, and they were children
who still believed good things can come true, if you just wish it hard
enough. If you close your eyes real tight and click your heels three times
and say, "There's no place like home," you could go home again. But
childhood is a jockey who rides on a paper horse. Nobody rides the paper
horse for long; there's too much rain.
We locked eyes, Mario and me. I wanted him to turn himself in to the
police. I recognized the look in his eyes, and I knew from all my
experiences on the street he never would. He was doomed and both of us
knew it. I wondered if Cheryse knew it, but then she was a fourteen year
old hooker, and she was more doomed than he was.
"What do you want, Mario?" I asked. I talked like a big brother, not a
father. "No bullshit. No preaching, no sermons. What do you want?"
He looked at Cheryse, and she looked back. He licked his dry lips and
looked at me. "Me and Cheryse go to Mexico, my family's village. In Mexico
I don't live like this."
"You're fourteen years old."
"In Mexico I'm fourteen years old. In San Francisco I'm gone be tried
as an adult for nothing I did."
"Don't you worry about those Vivisection shooters here?"
"They don't live here now," he said. "The cops want them so bad, they
cleared out and won't come back."
"That means this place is up for grabs," I told him. "Soon somebody is
going to want this turf, and there will be gunfire and the air will be
filled with stray bullets and innocent people will die."
"We can leave now," he said. "Got nothing holding us."
"You can stay and get your name cleared."
He scoffed at that nonsense. "I can't defend myself here. If I win, I
still go to jail forever. In Mexico we get a new start."
"You need cash to blow town. So who you gonna call?"
"We gonna be all right."
"Right." I thought of the American Dream: a fresh start in a new land.
"If you went to Mexico, you can never come back to the states."
"I never want to come back here."
"You can never come back!"
He truly understood this time. "Por tola vida!"
I agreed. "Until the end of time."
He gave me a kid's goofy grin. "Going this way I don't got to sneak
across the border in the dead of night."
"Are you going to steal a car to get to Mexico?"
He did not look at me.
"You'll have cops every step of the way."
"I die if I stay here."
The night outside our window erupted with the sound of gunfire, random
shots fired into the darkness. Automatic weapons fire shattered the window
and punctured the walls and the ceiling. A second swarm of bullets burst
through the windows and chewed up the ceiling and the walls, and plaster
chips fell like hailstones on us.
Cheryse grabbed up the stun gun. She touched my arm and jolted me. The
touch lasted forever, only a fraction of a minute, and I thought I was
having a heart attack. I bellowed and screamed, and as I fell to the
floor, echoes ricocheted throughout the cavernous hall.
Cheryse Geneva zapped me again. While I lay writhing, Mario Rosales and
Cheryse then grabbed what they could--including my two hundred
dollars--and took off running. They could have killed me easily enough,
but they didn't. Nowadays that makes them the good guys.
When I could stand, I climbed to my feet. I went to the window. I
thought I saw the two running from the building toward the far shadows
behind the other tower. They disappeared into Vivisection Valley. Romeo
and Juliet on the run. I wished them good luck. I knew they had none
I searched their love nest and found they had left most of their
belongings behind them, along with several piles of garbage. Those
belongings included all her trick outfits and a sawed-off .12 gauge
Remington 870 shotgun.
I wrapped the shotgun in a whore's chemise, careful not to smudge any
fingerprints. I couldn't leave the shotgun here. It would be gone before I
reached my car.
Two days later at Molly's Donuts I read in The San Francisco Examiner
that a teenager was shot and killed by a San Diego police officer during a
struggle as the officer attempted to arrest him and a teenage girl for
allegedly stealing a car. The two teenagers, both fourteen, were stopped
at 3:30 a.m. when the officer noticed them driving with a busted
taillight. The officer's computer reported the car had been stolen. While
he tried to handcuff the driver, the girl attacked the officer with a stun
gun. During the struggle, the officer's gun discharged once, striking the
boy in the head. The boy was taken to San Diego Medical Center and
pronounced dead on arrival. The girl was booked at the San Diego Juvenile
Hall for auto theft. The San Diego police did not identify the youths or
the officer to the newspaper.
Frederick Zackel teaches literature, writing, and the humanities at
Bowling Green State University.