A Backward GlanceChapter 17
I slept behind Mrs. Ruiz's restaurant that first night. By the time I got there, the place was closed up and everybody had gone home. It was lots safer in that part of town now that Ramon was in the big house; and when Mrs. Ruiz came back in the morning, I figured I could talk her out of something for breakfast.
I didn't sleep very well. I guess I got used to that soft bed at Frank's. And it could be I woulda slept better if I coulda stopped feeling so sorry for myself. Tomorrow night, I thought just before dawn, tomorrow night I'm gonna stay with Marly. OK, that wasn't a sure thing, and I knew that, but you gotta have something to try for. She wouldn't mind if I just wanted to sleep. I imagined being cuddled up in her arms in that big warm bed, listening to her hum some song I didn't know the name of while I dropped off to sleep.
A boot in the side woke me up. I didn't understand enough Spanish to know what the guy standing over me was saying for sure, but I think "Get the fuck outta here," would probably be a pretty close translation.
"Where's Mrs. Ruiz?" I said.
More Spanish. He balled up one fist, and let me know I was gonna get it if I didn't get moving. So I moved. I didn't see Mrs. Ruiz.
Too early to bother LaDonna and Marly. They'd still be in bed, and if you wanna ask somebody for something, it's not a good idea to piss 'em off first.
Made a dollar. It was tough, though; my bag was heavy, and not easy to drag around with me. I didn't wanna get rid of anything; no way to know when I'd get some more.
The people on the street were always changing. The only ones who were there all the time were the old ones; the winos, the hopheads, the lunatics. The young ones came and went. The other places I lived, I was close enough to downtown to be there once in a while, but Frank lived a long way out. I hadn't been at Frank's more than a month, and I'd been down here a time or two, but there were people I didn't know walking around looking lost, and some that I expected to see weren't there. I felt a little lost myself.
After noon I went to LaDonna's place. I figured they oughta be outta bed by now. I told myself I was going there to say hi, to see how they were doing, tell 'em what I was doing, all that kinda stuff, as well as trying to cadge a bed for tonight. Check in with old friends. You know?
But they weren't there. I knocked on the door and an old lady with gray hair answered.
"Marlene ain't here, and if you guys don't stop knocking on my door all hours a' the day and night, I'm gonna---"
"Where is she?"
"How the hell should I know? She don't live here no more." And she slammed the door shut.
I figured Artie would know. He knew all the girls, and he always knew what was happening on the street. If he'da had any brains, he coulda made some money selling what he knew, but I guess he never thought of it.
It took me a while to find him, and when I did, he took off running in the other direction. I caught him, though.
"I don't know nothing! Leave me alone!"
He always said that. But he always knew. I had to shake him up a little, give him a good reason to remember.
"I wasn't there, I didn't see it!"
"Oww! Don't hit me, all I know is what I heard."
He didn't know any details, he wasn't lying about that. All he'd heard was that LaDonna stepped in front of a downtown bus, and she was dead.
He didn't know where Marly was, and neither did anybody else I asked. She was just gone.
I hadn't seen 'em for months, their man didn't like me hanging around. I hadn't even thought about them much. But I always knew they were there. Now they were gone……
It was like…..somebody kicked another leg out from under my chair. A shadow of that feeling I had after my mother died, when I realized I was all alone, when I didn't know what was gonna happen to me. Underneath the hatred for my old man, the planning I did for when I found him, I was missing her and sick-afraid. This was a little like that.
Kinda surprised me. When I told Frank I didn't need anybody, didn't want anybody, I thought I was telling the truth.……………………..
I didn't see Anna at all, all day. The girls I asked said they hadn't seen her for a coupla days. Nobody knew anything.
I began to get a funny feeling, like everybody I knew was dying or disappearing and I was gonna be next.
Walked past where Weinstein's shop used to be. I heard he moved up north. There was a guy in there now with a repair shop. I don't know what he fixed. When he had the front door open, you could catch the smell of hot solder, metallic and burnt. So maybe he fixed radios, I don't know, I never wanted to go in……..
I spent 4 bits on something to eat about the middle of the day, at a diner. Wasn't too good, but it was cheap and it filled me up. For a while.
I had nothing to do. I wandered. Got hungry again after the sun went down, but tried to ignore it. I didn't wanna spend every cent I had on food. I just needed to wait long enough to go back to Mrs. Ruiz's restaurant.
Just after dark, I began to get a creepy feeling. One of those feelings where the hair stands up on the back a' your neck and you don't know why. I went around a corner like I was just strolling, and then ducked into a shadow, and waited. And I saw him. I couldn't see his face in the dark, but he was following me. He looked like a regular guy, from what I could see, and I didn't know why anybody'd be after me. Not like I had anything to steal besides clothes. But he was following me, no question; I knew it as soon as I saw him.
So when he came around the corner, slow and careful, I waited until he went by, and then stepped out behind him. He heard me, I guess. Stopped and turned around.
"Is that you?" he said.
I wasn't sure how to answer that, but I didn't have to, he went on.
"Yeah, there you are, I wondered how long it'd take you to find out I was looking for you. I suppose your tomboy girlfriend told you." He walked back toward me. It took me a second after I saw his face; he didn't look quite the same as the first time I saw him.
It was the prick that was bothering Anna a few weeks ago. The one that I lit into with a piece of angle-iron. The one I left lying in the rain.
Guess he was better. "What do you want?" I didn't really have to ask. Now that I could see his face, I knew what he
wanted."What do you think I want, punk?"
I thought about it for a second. I didn't think he could catch me if I ran away. He'd find me again sometime, though. Maybe next time, he'd take me by surprise, insteada the other way around.
And what did I have to lose?
The biggest decision I'd have to make would be what to do with him if he didn't killme……..
"You been bothering Anna?" I asked him.
"You talking about your little tramp?" He snickered. "I followed her around for a while, thinking I'd see you. Then I guess she got spooked and took off. I ain't seen her for a couple days."
I didn't know him well enough to know if he was lying.
He started toward me.
I figured if he'd had a gun and wanted to shoot me, I'd already be dead. So he probably wanted to beat me to death.
I was bigger than I used to be, I grew some while I was living with Frank, but this guy was still bigger than me. It felt like Krause all over again. Older, bigger, heavier. Maybe a longer reach, but I wouldn't know that until he hit me. If I let him get me down on the ground, I was dead.
I dropped my bag and ran for the alley. I could hear him cursing and coming after me. Not much here, old wood, and chunks of broken cement. The boards wouldn't be any good. They'd break or he'd take 'em away from me. I picked up two pieces of cement, small enough to hold inside each fist, and turned around.
I guess he didn't expect me to be standing still, 'cause he just about ran into my fist. He slipped and fell trying to avoid it, but I clipped him on the side of the head anyway as he went down. That was the only lucky hit I got. The rest of 'em I had to pay for.
You probably haven't had any experience with street fighting, but anything hard you hold inside your fist, like a rock, or even your set of keys, comes close to doubling the power in each punch. You can also break your hands that way. Plus, the pieces of cement were sharp in places and cut the inside of my hands.
I figured it was either my hands or my head. My hands would heal.
I tried to stay outta his reach, but he had longer arms than me, and about a third of his swings connected; when that happened, I tried to get one in, too. He didn't swing as much as he coulda; I think he was trying to catch me. By the time he realized he wasn't gonna be able to do that, he was getting tired. That's when I moved inside his reach and started hammering. When I could, I got my right arm around his neck, and concentrated on his face with my left. I took some punches to the gut, but not too many. He wasn't thinking too good by this time. He coulda kidney-punched me, and I woulda had to let him go, but I guess he didn't think a' that. I let him go when I felt him start to slump, watched him fall down, tried to stay on my own feet.
He was on the cement bleeding again.
"You had enough?" I was really hoping he'd say yes.
He snarled and started to get up. I knocked him down. Hit him a few more times, hit him until I realized he was unconscious.
I wasn't old enough yet to be able to stand stomach punches very well. I crawled a few feet away, and retched. Not much in my stomach to come up…….but I felt a little better when I was done.
He was still bleeding when I went back to look at him. Still bleeding, still breathing……
If I left him here, like I did last time, there was a good chance he'd recover and come after me again. The smart thing to do woulda been to find a big rock, and make sure he'd never come after me……..
I thought about it.
I was still thinking about it when I saw the man standing at the mouth of the alley. I don't know how long he'd been standing there, whether he'd seen the fight or not. He walked up to me, and started speaking Spanish. I decided to ignore him. He turned his head and yelled something.
Another man walked up. "You," the second man said. "You are the boy Tia Carmelita cares for?"
I shrugged. I didn't have any idea who Tia Carmelita was.
"My brother is in big trouble," he said. "He told you to leave the restaurant. You remember? Tia was very angry with him. She will be angry with him until he brings you back." The man laughed. "Looks like you need something more than food, now, no?" He squatted down next to me and pulled the fingers of my left hand open. I hadn't let go of the rock in that hand 'cause it hurt like hell. "We will leave this here. Let me help you up. Tia mio will want to see you now."
He walked with me out of the alley. I looked back over my shoulder at the prick lying on the ground.
"We will take care of this problem for you," the man said and smiled. He had very white teeth. "To make up for the mistake this morning."
I didn't ask what they were gonna do.…………..
Mrs. Ruiz ran her kitchen with an iron fist. She was short and round, but when she spoke, everyone jumped. She bandaged my hands, taped a coupla my fingers together, cleaned my face, and clucked over me in Spanish. She helped me eat, while the business of the restaurant went on around us. No one bothered us. She took my hand and began to speak to me, very seriously. I had no idea what she was saying. She spoke for several minutes, stroked my hair back from my face, gave me a kiss on the forehead at the end of it, and then turned her cheek up for her peck from me. Then she waited.
"You should give Tia a hug, for what she has done," the man with the white teeth said. He was sitting across the room.
So I did that. She was satisfied. She shook her finger at me, and spoke some more.
"Tia thought you had found a place for yourself," the man said. "Now you are back here. She thinks this is not good. She asks what you will do now. She says you must do better. You must grow up. You cannot live all your life like a puppy off the scraps from the back door. You must become a man."
A puppy, huh? I thought we were friends. She thought I was a puppy. That hurt me.
I stood up, said, "Gracias, Mrs. Ruiz," and picked up my bag. If she didn't want me hanging around anymore, then that was fine. I could take care of myself.
I didn't understand what she meant anyway. I just got thrown outta Frank's place for sleeping with his wife; just beat the crap outta some guy that jumped me; and she was saying I wasn't a man. What the hell did I have to do to be a man?