Look at This
When I was five my best friend Ruben Cabrera showed me the gun belonging to his big brother, a guy from an up-and-coming gang in the neighborhood that was gaining notoriety for its acts of violence against older, bigger gangs. In the toolshed, with the door cracked just enough for sunlight to slide in, Ruben brought the black gun up so that it seemed to hover over my nose and behind it in the dark an excited voice fired out, Cool, huh?
In a short story I titled “Suicide” after a childhood game, I recounted elementary school as a fifth- and sixth-grade me who spent recess with friends on a handball court hurling and kicking a red dodgeball at the wall, waiting for it to bounce back. In the game, if you dropped the ball you had to run the gauntlet of ten- and eleven-year-old arms and legs swinging for your body.
I was in college, away from home, reminiscing on my roots.
I wrote as a chubby boy named Gregory I knew from those days. He was the kind of kid who, like all of us, wanted to be accepted, but kept his polo shirt tucked in because his mother sent him to school that way. In the story, he played to be one of us. I beat him before he could get to the wall so that he crawled off the court to the sound of the ball bouncing around again, while children applauded his tolerance, his boyhood-manhood. In the end he switched schools and I never saw him again.
What You Gonna Do Now?
I’m sixteen at the indoor swap meet and the angry vato in front of me keeps telling me who he knows, where those people he knows are from, and what they’ll do to me and my homies. I tell him we could both call all the people we know and see what happens next. It’s simple, I explain: In this town everybody knows somebody, so it doesn’t matter who you know. I’m aware of my breathing, the sweat of my palms. He walks away saying, Watch, bitch, before disappearing among parked cars.
Smart Red Mouths
New Year’s Eve, 2005. Me and the guys are nineteen and drunk at the Lemon Tree Motel. After our friend Laura invites some young Marine friends of hers without telling us, our friend Vela gets an idea of how to get them to leave: What are you looking at, he tells them from across the room. Then, You think I’m cute? It works, but we end up in the parking lot, Jesse swinging a mini bat, me trying to get between Danny and one of the soldiers, the rest of the guests staring from their open doors.
What We’re Left With
I revisited the “Suicide” piece a year later. I thought about what happened on that handball court. I wondered how things ended with me and Gregory in real life and it took me a moment to remember that he was never there, that he never played or even got close to the handball court. But I couldn’t separate him from the story. I didn’t want to. He became what happened, the story I wanted to tell.
Red Ball Bounce
I think about the shadows we stood in, the dark shapes we still feel hovering, those deeper voices behind us—taller, stronger—that we couldn’t say no to. How we took with us, into toolsheds, through the playgrounds where we ran in circles, and then into manhood and motel parking lots, those stories of taut limbs swinging that our brothers showed us—how we keep passing these stories down with our knuckles.
Born and raised in Pomona, California, Michael Torres spent his childhood summers reading and writing book reports for his sister, and his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His work has appeared in Okey-Panky, Miramar, The Boiler, and other journals. Currently, he is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he teaches creative writing and works on Blue Earth Review.
Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.