Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Sammy Beneath the Freeway (a short story)
This story was published 20 years ago in a nationally distributed magazine called “L.A. Style.” Yesterday, a person from the scribe’s real job asked if he was the same person who conjured it. They explained that while in a writers' workshop in Wisconsin (!) somebody brought the piece in. That’s kind of amazing when you’re a writer hardly anybody (okay nobody) has ever heard of. the scribe read through the work, found it to be holding up rather well, and decided to post it. “Sammy” was an early, youthful and accidental triumph; a piece gone over again and again. And it is worth noting that as it was typed in tonight, the words flowed almost automatically, like water returning to a dry bed that once guided it to sea. The photo, which originally ran with the story, is by Merrick Morton
SAMMY BENEATH THE FREEWAY
AND ON SUMMER EVENINGS, the kind where the sun beats on your head while you walk the streets all day and then - wham! - it’s gone and suddenly cold the way it always gets in the desert city-by-the-sea, Sammy would lock the whole world out of his room in the big house beneath the freeway to be alone with the maddest passion in the barrio - Elena Gutierrez - while cars whooshed by above their lonesome loving heads. He helps her shed her clothes: classics. And I love you and I love you and I love you. And he feels here warm Summer breath against his chest of tattoos and gold chains. And the window is raised halfway, and sirens and endless moaning buses make noise all around them - as they embrace, skin dancing on skin, engendering gentle shudders and a parade of exquisite passions. And the clock stands still, breathless, and the city waits, breathless, outside his window for Elena to embrace them, too.
Abuelita once banged hard against his door with a heavy shoe - and him with Elena Gutierrez in there! She demanded that Sammy open the door in a way that said she meant what she said, and Sammy said, “Shhhhhhh.” He told Elena, “Be quiet and just act like you’re not here.” She told him, “I’m not and never have been. You’re such a dreamer Sammy.” They just looked at each other for ten seconds, neither saying anything and neither really understanding what it meant except that it couldn’t be good. Downstairs in the kitchen, Abuelita - little grandmother - waited so that she might have a word with Sammy about women and lust and this being a good Catholiic house. But she never had a chance to open her mouth because down came Sammy half hysterical at his unspent passion. Ranting and raving and finally growing sad, almost crying, looking out the kitchen window. “Goddamn it - what are we going to do about this arbol triste, this sad palm tree crying all over our front walk!” She snapped at him forgetting herself. “Sammy, don’t you dare take the Lord’s name in vain.”
She pleaded urgently: “Sammy, I don’t understand your modern world, your electric everything. I don’t understand your language. I don’t understand at all where you are coming from or rushing to. Good God, Sammy, isn’t there anything I can do to help you?”
Then she would get up slowly and place a dark veil over her face and leave to meet with gray ladies like herself at la misa where they would kneel and say prayers and sing sad psalms for el savior, the salvador.
He’d argue with Abuelita whenever he was around her. There was not one iota of respect for what the other generation thought or learned on either side, and she spit gray language at him and stared him down with gray eyes beneath gray brows. Just gray gray gray, that’s what he thought of when he thought of her, and it was too bad because she really loved him. She’d grow concerned and tell him of a time when the world was not so shamelessly mad and go on and on about education and jobs and how in the days of the Kennedys - and he would say, “To hell with the Kennedys. Nothing’s changed. Nothing.”
When Sammy finally got a job at the Davis Pleating Company for el minimo wage he almost immediately got involved with Jaime Torres and his rag-tag union of garment workers. Abuelita tried to warn him, to stay working, to stay away from that union - it was no good, Sara Martinez said it was ridden with Sandinistas and terrorists.
But when that son-of-a-bitch called the migra to clear out the organizers because they were all illegals anyway, they called a strike and they struck and struck and struck for months on end, sabotaging the factory and chanting UNION! UNION! UNION! at the lunch hour. Finally the company went broke and Abuelita said, “See now? What the hell good is a union without a plant in which to earn money?”
“If they start it, we can finish it,” was all he could say with his catkid kind of smile. “If they start it we can finish it.”
After Sammy shot the guy from Whittier dead because it’s an eye for an eye in this life, he said without blinking that he had not seen the face of the vato he had shot at the back of his poor stupid head. He just went with a feeling inside that told him it was the guy that shot his cholo long long before, and then he went to church to pray because Sammy believed in God when he was afraid or when he was sure he was gonna die.
Abuelita prayed for days when she heard, in church no less, that Sammy had killed another man, and she scolded him for days and stopped cooking caldo for days and decided that it was this goddamn barrio that had taught him to do these things, and he told her, “the barrio is just fine Abuelita. What about out there in Chino where they killed that whole entire family and chopped them up with axes and slit that little boy’s throat leaving him for dead? In Chino, Abuelita. In Chino.”
It had nothing to do with age, really. His street friends and cholos didn’t understand him any better, and he would be walking on the streets with them and the sun would be shining - but with the brightness filtered out by the filth in the air - and he would say, “What kind of fatal sunshine is this?” And shake his head, and they would spit on the ground and look at each other through squinty eyes, and nobody knew what the hell he was talking about.
It was orange and purple and beautiful, just like it had always been.
He looked at them poor stupid fools, all his beloved homeboys, and wondered, “How could it be that all these young cholos, the first Californians, be nothing but dirt in their own tierra of Aztlan, and what a bunch of losers we all are to never be the masters of our own destiny, to be condemned to eternal night-and-day passage of cars on the freeway above our heads and, after all, was this fair?”
Still, he was the happiest sad person that the wide streets of the town had ever seen, and before heading out on one of his endless boulevard nights, he would grab a handful of change from Abuelita’s silver cup for the gray-bearded bums and boys he would meet in doorways and alleyways of Streetworld, Eastside, L.A.
One chemical twilight along the Broadway, he fell head over for a perfect puta pushing herself on whomever. Sammy watched her sweet face and he wondered aloud, “My God, I would do you for love, poor puta. How can you do it with anyone and just for money?” And she told him straight away, without breaking stride or even stopping to look at him, “I can’t eat love, vato.”
He watched her roll past him down the street until she had gotten almost too far to hear him before shouting, “Go ahead, woman, and find your many sugar daddies and do what you must to survive in this terrible gringolandia. I’m sorry for bringing up love in this hopeless place. I’m sorry. I...am...sorry.”
Late late at night, Sammy drank coffee and smoked mota and listened to the radio for this girl deejay on some forgotten fading-in-and-out station named Portia with a voice as smooth as streetsmack or midnight crack. He would listen for a while and then call in requesting this rap and that jam, and finally he began talking to her, holding full-blown conversations with her for extended periods of time, and everybody listening in. And, in doing so, he became a latenight legend - a sort of street prince. Really. Everyone knew this kid Sammy.
...And What He Told Her
He told Portia that all musical history, as far as he knew, was “nothing but white people and Rolling Stones ripping off what the blacks had thought up all on their own and turning it to money.” Now, there was no great love for the blacks, as between us we had what was left of the rest, but we were all niggers somehow, and the whole barrio nodded in solemn agreement in the earliest hours of the so cool cool California morning.
He told Portia about his fantasy girl, a white girl, the kind with taught face pulled down over high cheek bones. The kind in perfume commercials with sullen gray eyes and a cotton dress draped over a skinny skinny body.
He told Portia about his fantasy house. It only had to be a simple place where grayness could filter its somber way through a window of countless hanging green plants. It needed wooden floors and two pillows for each of their lonesome loving heads and maybe soft piano music that would echo up and down the wooden corridors of the simple city home of him and his gray girl in the cotton dress, and was that asking too much?
“It is from me,” Portia told him and giggled sexy, ruining the whole thing saying, “I’m a deejay and must avoid things gray at all costs. It’s a matter of professional necessity, Mr. Sammy Streetprince.”
He told Portia that he wanted to travel and see and meet and tell people that he was from a city where the poor begged the poor for money with little styrofoam cups. A city where deer walked in the gardens of castles in the hills and looked over an immense carpet of ribbons of white light that crisscrossed and endless valley, where dark silhouettes of Mexican palm trees popped up haphazardly like exploding fireworks of shadows and dark velvet.
A city where coyotes came down one cool evening and killed Abuelita’s rooster chained to a tree in the backyard.
“Some inner city,” he wondered over the airwaves. “Some inner city,” he said.
What She Told Him Then
“Quiet now, Sammy, my thunderbird prince so that I can play this cryin’ baby bluestime record for all those people who have forfeited the gift of sleep forever. Good night.” That’s what she told him.
The Cocoa Girl and Her East L.A. Blues...
One Sunday, after watching the Raiders and finishing up his carne de res, Sammy wore black gloves and rode his huffy bike up and down the street poppin’ wheelies for the rucas and firme baby dolls waiting on the corner - always on the corner.
“Que-vo-let Sammy!” they shouted at him, “You probably thinking you a kind of bad dude or sumthin’.” They were all there - Lil Payasa de Los Angeles, La Giggles (the one with the gun) and La Bambie de East Dallas - all watching and acting as if they thought Sammy was some kind of fool.
Sammy rode over to the teen angels like he was the baddest vato in the whole of Aztlan, checkin’ El Chivo’s chola and sizing up that new one, that sweet lil’ sad girl. “Oh!” under his breath, “La Bambie de E. Dallas! Soy tuya mi amor.”
She was a small girl with a kind of cocoa complexion and blue eyes by God knows who, and she left with Sammy, and the rucas began talking as soon as they were out of earshot. “Wait ’til La Crazy Loca hears about this,” Chata Galava did say. “Wait until she hears.”
Sammy walked and talked love with Bambie and he told her like he told them all that she was the most beautiful chola in all of Califas and that now he was la chola’s vato - her vato.
Then they drifted across town. Walking and taking the bus, walking and taking the bus, because nobody gets anywhere in this town without wheels. So much so, Sammy told the new girl, that the first thing he taught a new brother fresh from the rainforests of revolution to the south was how to say, “Five bucks gas please.”
“How else could they survive, Bambie? How else?”
Finally he made love to her gently, like with Elena, up on the two hundred steps of Micheltorena while the greasy smell of carne asada drifted up from Zamora Bros. carniceria way down below, and Sammy seductively securing her delicate heart, barrio blossom baby, for his growing garden of love. She flipped for him. Just flipped.
The next Saturday, when Sammy finished his carne de res, he wore black gloves and rode past all the firme baby dolls on the corner. They were always on the corner.
Bambie glowed in anticipation and licked tamarindo from her icy little fingers. She waited patiently. After all, he was her vato, and all that stuff with La Giggles was just Sammy playin’ - wasn’t it?
But Sammy did not come around to her and instead left with another ruca, telling her that she was the most beautiful baby in all of Califas, whispering the same steamy “soy tuya mi amor.”
...And What She Wrote Sammy
La Bambie de E. Dallas wrote a dedication beneath the crying palm tree on the sidewalk in front of the big house beneath the freeway named for another goddamned Spanish priest.
to Sammy from little ruca sadgirl
the one who really love you
lo mucho que te quiero/my room
is lonely without you...
let’s get it on
But these words were wasted ones, and soon the heart was broken forever, and the girl from East Dallas joined the thousands of others like her - the suffering madonnas de nuestra señora la reina de los angeles: riding the bus, toting children, never shaving their legs (letting the hair grow long on them) and working in la fabrica o la tienda.
What the Operadoras Said
Feeling for La Bambie and the hurt she carried forever inside, Abuelita warned Sammy that things go around and around in the timeless barrio. Sammy laughed at her for hours on the front step, just laughed and laughed - because he didn’t really have much to do or anywhere else to go anyway.
And soon after...he had his heart broken, too. Poor Bambie had heard the operadoras and sweatshop seamstresses saying that it had been the doing of La Crazy Loca from the 18th Street Gang. She’d heard them laugh, satisfied. She’d heard them say, “So he’s finally stopped playing reggae.” That his silly revolution had finally faded away.
She’d heard them say that Sammy had joined all the men in the doorways of downtown. The men with the enormous stomachs and sad eyes who stood growing old nursing countless Coronas, bottomless-bottles-of-beer men who watched the broken hearts in the buses go by.