My sincerest thank you to all who read and liked Act 5! Only two more acts to go!
The crackled and distorted voices are like a middle-of-the-night phone call in some horror movie. When the hoots and loud music fade a little, John Hinojosa answers. “Yeah, hell-o?” I don’t think I’ll be able to get a single word out of my mouth. But I have to work this just right. Somehow.
“John, we got lost on the fucking way back to the house, man,” I say with the coolest drawl I can manage. “The fucking ice is melting!”
Christ. One of my best charades could fall flat on its face in about half a second and this will all be over. Oh God, please…
“Wha-? We don’t even need ice, you retards.” He laughs, sounding way past tipsy. “Just come back to Bryan’s Uncle’s big red ranch house. Y’know, the one on Bentsen, right before Four Mile?”
Yes. “You got it man,” I say, breathing relief as I hang up. But then the sudden awareness: I’m contaminated with an answer that could end me. Leave me nothing for laying it all out there.
You gotta stay strong. For the rest of this night, at least.
I veer back onto the road from the turning lane I paused in while calling Hinojosa, giving my truck a little too much gas. Farther north on Shary, the construction markers line the half of the road that is dirt and barren, like orange-yellow halogen guides on this narrow and desecrated path.
It’s weird, but driving past neighborhood after neighborhood, I start to wonder about people from school. Friends and others.
What’s George from speech class doing now?
Passing Faith Baptist church at two mile, I hope, faintly, that he still goes to our church like I used to. That he is holding on to some kind of faith, being stable somewhere on this night that is used to harboring drunks and dirty deeds.
Or Mark, even? He’s probably going to another local band’s show to rock and mosh, even if he’s not hard-core like that on the inside. Is he happy doing that?
Passing through a deserted four-way – Two Mile –, I feel a little unsettled by the empty passenger seat and turn up the radio. Just commercials: ‘Get a lawyer,’ then ‘Back to our regularly scheduled slow love song playlist for all you wandering souls out there.’
Looking back up, I spot figures ahead on the right side of the road, like phantoms in the dark. This is the darker stretch of road between Two and Three Mile, where grapefruit groves stretch beyond both sides of Shary like aligned armies. I don’t think I should stop, now just a couple of dozen yards away from them. Slowing to twenty, I check the rearview mirror and can only see one car behind me, so far back that it looks like a singular light at the horizon.
Hold on…I know these guys, don’t I?
A couple of them disappear when my headlights sweep over them, but two actually get closer to the road, waving and hollering. The leader is Luis Alvarez, who I had English class with last semester, obviously not afraid to get run over. He staggers and waves me on, eyes unfocused.
Pulling over, I recognize the second guy as Lazaro Tobias, a dark stocky tennis player and buddy of Hector’s. He looks oddly well dressed and calm in the night.
Stopping a few feet before them, I cut the engine and watch Luis swagger over. “’Bout fucking time!” He hoots. “We needed a truck.”
I roll down the window and call, “What the hell you guys doing?” Lazaro’s eyes shift beadily away from my headlights, and it doesn’t take him long to recognize me. He turns with a sneer and shoves his hands in his pockets.
“Yo, wassup my man.” Luis throws an arm over the side mirror and tries to focus on me, but his red eyes loll in their sockets. “We need your help. Can you help us, dude?”
I try my best to smirk and reply, “Depends. But yeah I’ll try, Luis.”
A glint of recognition in his eyes. “You…know me?”
He lets go of the mirror and stumbles closer to me, practically jabbing his head in my window as he squints at me. I flick on the inside light. He looks wasted; nothing less than high and drunk, I bet.
“Oh…oh, yeah. You’re…yeah.”
“From English class? Mrs. Lopez?”
“There you go.” He snaps his fingers. Luis never seems to be glad for much, because every time I see him he’s got this resentment in his eyes. Against the teachers, against authority. But he smiles now, a dark and almost provoking grin that shines with his own secret hunch. “R.J.”
“Yeah man.” I breathe easy. “So what’s happening?”
“Aw, we were just having some fun. Y’know, smoking the good stuff.” He holds a make-believe joint to his mouth and inhales sharply before chuckling. “We were tripping forever. Then we come back and see that the car rolled into the ditch. Fucking OSMAR forgot to put the brake on!”
Nobody comes out of the groves. Luis shakes his head and clicks his tongue. He beckons for me to follow and says, “Lemme show you this shit.” I get out and shut the door, the sound like a muffled gunshot as I shiver in the chilly night.
“It’s down there,” Luis says once I get by his side. Before us is a hill that isn’t steep but slopes down pretty far, to where the drainage ditch flows under the road. The back of a 90’s green Nissan car juts out of the dark.
“Holy shit,” is all I can say. Lazaro, who’s peeling a grapefruit with a pocket knife and hasn’t looked up since I pulled over, glances at me. “So you gonna tow us out or what, R.J.?”
I look at him, unwavering in my quiet anger. Lazaro, always with that cool tone, trying to piss me off. I don’t know why, but he really has something against me. Still, whether it’s because I’m not outgoing or because his personality doesn’t agree with mine, I don’t have to put up with it.
“You guys got ropes or chains?” I ask them both, “We can do this if you do.”
“The latter,” Luis slurs, nodding before heading down the slope. “It’s pretty smart of me to keep chains in the trunk, huh Lazaro?”
“Sure thing man,” he says with boredom in his voice. Like he’s high and mighty shit.
I look down the road both ways, suddenly feeling almost claustrophobic in the night, under the moon. Only one car has passed since I pulled over.
“Hey man,” I call after Luis, heading down and allowing my shoes to slide with the dirt and tiny rocks that give way. “Let me help.” It’s about an eight-foot slope, and I skid to a stop as Luis pops the trunk open. He reaches in and passes me a metal hook attached to a thick chain, his face more concentrated under the shallow copper-orange glow of the trunk light. Starting to head back up, I catch sight of something behind the chain coil. A red book with an embossed cover.
“That the yearbook?” I ask offhandedly.
“Huh?” Luis looks at me, then back into the trunk. “Oh…yeah man. That’s Osmar’s, I think.”
He knocks his hand across a Windex bottle and a couple of empty beer cans before grabbing the annual and hauling the end of the chain out. Once he slams the trunk shut and hooks his end of the chain under the car’s hitch receiver, we climb back up. At the same time that I get eye level with flat ground, I see another figure step out from the rows of grapefruits. Black soccer shoes with Puma in green lettering. I look up at the darkened face of Hector Solis.
“R-Jay,” he says, arms apart in cool greeting, “I never woulda guessed it was you, dude.” He laughs a little. “To-tal opposite of the cops.”
“What’s up Hector,” I say, clapping hands with him. Immediately I feel more at easy. My buddy.
“This dude’s here to help,” Luis says, trudging past me. “Fuck the cops.”
I slightly extend my arms out from my sides as if to say ‘See? Not a rat.’ Hector smiles in agreement, hands in the front pocket of his black hoody. “Osmar!” He calls back. “You can quit hiding now, man.”
Somewhere close by the plants rustle, and a voice calls in a whiny tone, “See Hector? Now can I have the Zippo?” Hector pulls out a silver lighter, making a show as he twirls it in his hands before flicking it on. In the glow, he looks wickedly far off behind his round, blood-shot eyes.
“No can do, Osmar. R.J. here needs a light to guide his way.”
I look at him thankfully and snicker. “Yeah, for sure.”
We head back to the truck, Lazaro sitting down on the ground with heavy eyes.
“Down here,” I tell Hector, crouching and fumbling for the tow hook underneath the front of my truck. He lays down beside me and sticks the lighter as far under as he can reach. Luckily, it’s just far enough to throw a waving glow on the hook, and I latch the chain on with no sweat.
“It’s all set,” I say, getting back up on my feet.
“Sweet,” Hector says, looking off distantly. A shadow leaps at him from behind, startling us both.
“Tell Osmar to keep his yearbook,” Luis drawls, passing the red book to Hector and patting his shoulder.
“Dude, this is my yearbook, Luis. Idiot.”
“Oh.” Luis rubs his ear and turns away. “Well, least you got your crush to sign it.”
Hector tries to let out a sincere laugh as Luis walks away to sit by Lazaro. I can feel Hector’s pang of hope like it resonated in my own chest. It’s almost 9:00. I’ve got to tow them out and bail.
“Well hey, since you’re helping us out and all…” Hector holds out his yearbook and looks at me from under his hood. “Maybe you could give me a few words.”
I take his book and half-smile. “Yeah man. No problem.”
I know he doesn’t have a pen, so I hop in the driver’s seat of my truck, find one of my own and begin turning the pages, looking for a blank space. Hector moseys over to the door.
“Er…yeah. I got it,” I say, and start writing by the dome light. I just tell him that he’s been a good friend. Thanks for letting me sit with you guys at lunch. Have a good summer. And I sign it.
He drops a Ziploc baggie on the yearbook as I close it. There’s some pale green weed inside, little snippets. But tonight I feel too tired to even pass judgment.
“We’re in no rush, man,” Hector says almost delicately, snapping the Zippo shut and throwing us into the faint amber light. “If you wanna try some. From a friend to a friend, y’know.”
I look up at him, feeling years of training and parenting and dating regrets culminate into one answer. In the dark I can still see sincerity in Hector’s half-aware gaze.
“I can’t man,” I say, smiling sadly. “I gotta be somewhere soon. For someone.”
He nods and lowers his head. I pick up the bag and offer it back. He looks away for a moment, then looks back and takes it.
“I’ll start it up,” I offer, trying not to miss a beat. I look out the front and see Lazaro grinning at us in an ‘I told you’ sort of way. R.J.’s such a do-gooder.
Once I tow them out, they’re off. No cops – maybe not even another soul – feel remotely close to us. The four of them are bumping fists, patting each other on the back.
“Take it easy, R.J.” Hector raises two fingers my way, eyes slanted down. In a way, I think he can sense that where I have to be tonight is somewhere important. Somewhere I can prove that I am courageous to the one person who makes me doubt myself the most.
Then he ducks his head down and shuts the back door of Luis’ car. No peeling out, no blaring music. Only one dim red turn signal, a plume of dust, and they’re gone.