Ten minutes into AP Economics, Javier knew the class was a wash. Patel had wandered down memory lane, a diversion for which the class knew he needed little coaxing, and the double-gluten lunch had everyone’s eyes at half mast. A spade-faced boy sitting along the edge was completely out, his head back against the wall, mouth open as if ready to catch raindrops.
Today it was Raffa laying the bait, Patel quickly picking it up, the exchange one of many classroom bargains that grew out of their shared fate. “Wait a minute, Mr. Patel, so you’re saying it’s called a hostile takeover?” It was a rhetorical set shot, an alley oop, like asking the lady shopping for cat food if she had any thoughts on wet versus dry. Javier never tired of the act, but as this was their second year with Patel, the anecdotes from his days in private equity were getting recycled. He glanced over at Gio, absorbed in today’s sketch, a human jaw so lifelike Javier found himself working his own back and forth like he was trying to pop his ears. Lately, though, while Raffa and Sergio goosed Patel, Javier ended up staring out the window at his younger brother, Alex, who attended Gaither Middle School across the street. In two short months, the schoolyard version of Alex had grown increasingly unlike the one that showed up at the dinner table.
The lunch scene at Gaither hadn’t changed much since Javier had attended four years earlier—popular kids coalescing and dissolving into groups, oddballs off to the side standing like pillars waiting for the bell to ring. Alex sat perched as usual on the top row of the bleachers between his friends Beto and Augusto, phones out, a bag of chips getting passed between them. Javier knew two of the other boys, Augusto and Beto, knew their families, nothing to worry about there. Whenever Javier checked Alex’s phone in the evening at home, it showed only these three in the chat. Dumb memes and gamer videos. But the signs were there. During lunch, Alex had started hiking his left pants leg up, a throwback look—left up for buyers, right for sellers—that seemed to be working its way back on social media. He’d started sagging, the denim crotch more like a hemline, the bright red of gym shorts sticking out like too much jam in a sandwich. And two boys would arrive halfway through lunch, taking the bleachers three at a time, stepping over lunch trays on their way to the back row. The first boy always wore a pristine ball cap turned at a jaunty angle, a shiny decal still affixed to the bill. The other boy, hands shoved deep in his pockets, wore a hoodie that swung off the crown of his head as if glued in place–Itchy and Scratchy respectively, the former because of his insistent, vacant smile and the latter for his all black attire.
Itchy would plop down next to Alex, stick one hand in the bag of chips, and then drape the other arm over Alex’s shoulder, a telling combination of coercion and brotherhood that had grown over the first semester. Two months ago, Alex would have given the boy all shoulder, eyes on his phone. Here it was, October, now with the fist bumps and head-nods. Itchy brought the hype, the salesman. Scratchy was the menace, a promise of violence. Javier held the most contempt for guys like Scratchy, follow-ons who kept the whole charade going. Javier had known a handful of Scratchies—his friend, Chuey, exhibit A— knew they had more choice in their lives than the irretrievable Itchys of the world who couldn’t help but inspire the worst in others. Scratchies lacked imagination, and without them, Itchys were just gas.
The Gaither lunch bell rang. Scratchy scanned the quad like a farmer looking for a good place to plant corn. He climbed down the steps, a pop-and-lock that gave him the appearance of old age. Itchy stood, having blown smoke now for ten minutes continuously. Then the cherry-on-top: out of view of the school cameras, he hand-flashed with the fluid grace of an interpreter for the deaf the letters S, R, V: the first letters of the three street names, Sepulveda, Roscoe, and Van Nuys, that bounded their neighborhood, Barrio Horseshoe, or just the Shoe.
There was no fourth street because the southern boundary of the Shoe was a lunar landscape called Frogtown, a 200-acre vacant lot in the middle of east San Fernando Valley. Fifty years ago, when the Valley had been mostly farmland, the area had been a man-made lake. Seen from above even today, it resembled an enormous footprint minus the toes. On Google Maps, it was cryptically referred to as a hazard abatement area, a lake long since dried up and now a tent city for the Valley’s destitute. Both code and law enforcement took a hands-off approach, certain that a close look would trigger enough paperwork to keep everyone behind their desks for months.
Javier heard the Gaither bell ring, and watched Alex slow-walk to class like he was underwater. Another bad sign.
“Dumb and Dumber come by?” Raffa broke in.
Class was ending, Patel now returning to the mundane world of homework and Friday’s quiz. Javier looked at the white board and made a mental note of the page numbers to read and the problem set to finish. Raffa knew Javier had been watching Alex and the daily ritual. “He’s in eighth grade, big brother. They’re all stupid.” Raffa zipped up his backpack. “Trust me. Jocelyn belongs in a cage.” Jocelyn was his sister. “I say put ‘em all on an island, come back in a year. Whoever survives gets to go on to high school.”
Javier thought of smiling but couldn’t. “Kid’s a follower, and he’s angry about something.” He stuck his notebook and his backpack, ran his thumb over the five early action envelopes he’d already been sent, reminders that the end was near, the offramp approaching. “The homies sniff it out and work it.” He couldn’t shake the fact that it was Alex, not Beto or Augusto, who was the target.
The bell rang—really more of a chime—and the class stood to leave. Javier nudged Gio, still staring at McRibbs, the skeleton parked in the corner, its head tilted toward the floor as if he’d dropped something and was looking for it. AP Ec shared the room with AP Bio, the result of low overall AP enrollment as the cohort of AP kids, college-tracked since they were twelve, dwindled every year. Charters creamed off the high achievers, leaving a smaller and smaller group of kids looking at post-secondary options. Twelfth grade was the last beachhead for most of the East Valley kids, and a good number of them figured there wasn’t much on the other side. Every year a large chunk of the senior class simply just went straight into the workforce, the unimpeachable logic of the paycheck eclipsing whatever speculative end-game came with a diploma.
Raffa was the first to stand and saluted Patel with a good-natured thumbs-up, a tacit nod to their seamless transition out of interest rates and into storytime, Patel smiling back sheepishly. The three boys walked into the hallway traffic, a human salmon run after fourth period. Raffa turned to Javier over his shoulder. “Relax. He’s gonna join a tagging crew, throw up his placa three times, get busted on the fourth when he shows up on camera.” They wound down the stairwell and then outside to the quad. “Then De Luna’s gonna turn the jets on his ass.”
Officer De Luna was the school police officer who made it his life’s mission to put wayward boys like Alex back on the path all their mothers wanted them on. Raffa took out his water bottle, offered a sip first to Gio and then to Javier who both declined. “Then you’ll take him to Walmart to buy a new set of chones to replace the ones he wore to De Luna’s office.”
De Luna routinely took the Gaither “frequent fliers” and put them into a room with a group of veteranos who’d lived the life, done the time, and now put the fear of God into boys like Alex. Their facial scars webbed with stitch lines belied a history of violence, their jailhouse tats now blurred and illegible. Eight of them would put their chairs in a row, a firing squad for each of the Gaither bad apples.
See this paperclip? That’s what Papi will use to ink his initials on your neck, entiendes? Then another would push in closer, an ugly, staring face with dead eyes. Each fatherless boy, an unexpected spark of need suddenly welling up, as if summoned by this stranger, so close now, he could hear the man’s breath whistling through his nose. One by one, their chairs scraping the floor, until in an OG semicircle. One of them—whichever one still had his prison swole—would whip off his shirt to reveal a torso slabbed with muscle.
Gonna put salt in yo ass. Hahahahahaha. Yo ass taste better with salt. More riotous laughter, and De Luna would get up and leave the room to take a call, and that’s when some of the boys would pee themselves.
Javier, Gio, and Rafa walked to the main office where Raffa worked part time answering phones, sorting mail, running notes to teachers, and translating for parents. Like Javier, he was on a glide path to college, his desk at home stacked with scholarship offers. They had, in fact, both already accrued enough credits to have graduated by now.
“Only double-hinged joint in the body.” Gio tried wiggling his jaw. “But mine’s mostly up and down, you know. I can still hear it click, though…” It came out sounding as if it were his fault. He and Javier had been mistaken as brothers in fifth grade when they first met. In the pigmentocracy of the barrio, they were on the almond end of things, with bee-stung lips framing their fish angled mouths. In their school photos, it was always Javier with the steady, realistic gaze back at the camera, Gio’s always skidding off to one side. Teachers had to lookat their necks to tell the two apart. Javier wore a gold Our Lady, though their hairstyles had gone in separate directions a year later. Soon after Gio and his sister were plucked from their home and shuttled off to their first placement, his hair quickly became a mop he trimmed himself with school scissors. Javier, by contrast, had always been twos on the side and fives on top. The only other distinguishing feature was the scar over Javier’s left eye where his father had taken batting practice, the dead white tissue of a slow healing wound stitched up country style back in Jalisco.
“You ever notice how skeletons all seem like they’re smiling?” Gio mused. He made a Cheshire smile, revealing two rows of fun-house teeth. An orthodontist could look in Gio’s mouth and see his daughter’s college tuition. It was, in fact, Javier who had taught him how to brush.
“Spring’ll be here faster than you might think, Gio,” Javier, trying to inject an ounce of reality into Gio’s head. “The Needles sisters are gonna change the locks, put your shit on the curb. Believe it, Gio.”
“Emancipated, Javi.” He gave Javier a look, then chuckled as if considering the full weight of the term. He made a puzzled expression, then pushed off and wandered off toward the unlit section of the hallway past the main office, a no-man’s land that led to a stairwell with a pair of locked doors at the bottom. Kids went to vape there, some using to take a leak when the bathrooms were locked. Halfway down the hall Gio stopped in front of a display built into the wall, eternally lit by a pair of fluorescent tubes, trophies from generations ago, art projects from students now old enough to have kids of their own. He leaned in, trying to read something.
“Don’t forget, dinner next week,” Javier half-shouted. “Ma’s playing catch-up on Rebelde.” Gio had spent a summer at Javier’s between foster placements during which time he’d taught Mama how to program her DVR. She immediately loaded up with episodes of Rebelde, her favorite novela and then recruited Gio to watch with her. Even now, he often spent class time watching episodes and texting her spoiler-free updates.
Gio nodded, already more interested in the display, his detachment sudden and complete.
Javier’s phone buzzed, a text from his mother. She’d be working another double tonight which meant there’d be a frozen brick of noodle soup in the sink when he got home. The freezer was full of them, gallon zip lock bags stacked like sandbags along the banks of a cresting river. She never said no to more work, and she had the joint pain to prove it. In the early morning hours when she returned from work, Javier would often greet her with a tube of high-octane Mexican balm that he’d rub into her knees and shoulders.
Javier was on a glide path to college, the only questions being which one and how much. And yet, underneath all this promise, he could feel a growing undertow. Alex, a born rule-follower, was beginning to slip the tethers of family and school, and though his mother never said a word, would never come right out and say it, he knew she relied on his contribution to the monthly nut.
His carefully built Jenga tower had a couple of pieces sticking out.