By Daniel Mkiwa
Ernesto woke up.
He had agreed to meet Blutito at 9:00 a.m. It was 11:34 a.m.
His head pounded from another hangover. He looked at his beeper. Nobody had paged him.
He got up and looked at the photo of he and his older brother, Martin, taken almost five years ago, just before Martin went away to San Quentin. In the photo, Ernesto grinned like a typical, dumb, thirteen-year-old kid, while his twenty-year-old brother looked solemn and intense.
Martin “Sleepy” Ramirez was killed in prison.
Revenge came quick. The Piru Blood who had stabbed Martin was dead within weeks. It all happened inside. Ernesto heard different stories as to why the murder happened in the first place. He didn’t know what to believe, and he didn’t really care.
He noticed that in the six months since his brother’s funeral, some people started calling him “Sleepy” or just “Sleep” for short, instead of “Lil’ Sleepy.” He didn’t feel comfortable with this change. Martin had been nicknamed “Sleepy” because he would sleep a lot during the day. Ernesto was never like that at all. He normally never slept in late. But he was Sleepy’s carnalito, and so the name “Lil’ Sleepy” stuck.
He checked the answering machine. No new messages.
On his way out of his bedroom he accidently kicked the box that held six or seven spray paint cans. They had not been touched in months. He had not felt like painting in a very long time.
Before he left the house he checked the mailbox. Nothing.
He walked the three blocks to the handball courts at the park. He saw the other members of his clika there, as usual.
“Orale, Sleep!” Blutito shouted. “How you feelin’, ese?”
Orale and ese were slang terms used by Mexicans, never by Salvadorans. By calling Ernesto ese, Blutito was calling him a Mexican; he was calling him lazy.
“Que paso?” Ernesto replied, ignoring the slight.
“What happened to you, bicho?” Blutito laughed. “We were supposed to meet a nueve.”
“Fuckin’ goma.” Ernesto said.
Everybody laughed. “We gonna start calling you lil’ bolo.” Chele said.
“Ai, no mas.” Ernesto smiled, rubbing his head.
Carlos and Flaco played handball on a court that had one of Ernesto’s paintings: a large “MS-13” painted to make the letters look chromed, with realistic flames all around them as if the letters were sitting in Hell. The M and the 3 each had a protruding devil’s horn. Spectacular when he had first painted it a year before, it had become faded and smudged by months of handball.
Blutito walked closer to him. “Puchica maje!” he said. “You still down or what?”
Blutito’s eyes were hard and challenging. This annoyed Ernesto. He grew tired of people challenging his loyalty to the clika, and questioning whether he had heart or not.
“Yeah, I’m down,” he said, “what you think?”
“You been avoiding this thing we been talking about.”
“I’m not avoiding nothing.”
“Some people think you have lost el corazon.”
“Fuck that.” Ernesto spat on the ground. “I’m down.”
“Okay then.” Blutito said, looking away. “Tonight we do this thing, va?”
“Chivo,” he replied.
“This thing” was a liquor store in Harvard Heights. Juanito knew a guy who worked as an electrician. The guy did some work at this liquor store and he said that the safe in the back didn’t work right: it just opened and closed. You didn’t have to type in a combination.
Juanito told Blutito about it and they decided to recruit Ernesto to be their third man.
Ernesto wondered why Juanito did not come to him first with the information. They were cousins after all. But instead Juanito had gone to Blutito.
Blutito got his nickname because his father was called Bluto. His father got the name because he was a big muscular guy with a thick black beard, and he looked like Bluto from the Popeye cartoons. Bluto had been doing a life sentence for murder at San Quentin since Blutito was five years old. That was thirteen years ago.
Blutito looked nothing like his father. Just like Ernesto, Blutito was skinny and clean-shaven with a bald head. But he had a tattoo of the Bluto cartoon character on his forearm as a tribute to the father he barely knew.
After a while, Ernesto told the clika that he was going to go home and have an aspirin. They laughed and hassled him. He knew that Blutito was watching him as he walked away.
He went home and looked in the mailbox. Nothing.
He checked his answering machine. No messages.
He kicked off his sneakers and lay down in his bed.
Ernesto woke up.
The phone was ringing. He picked it up.
“This is Bear Goya. You remember me?”
“Yes. Hello. How are you?”
“I’m good. Listen Ernesto, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but we are going with other candidates this year.”
“You are a very strong candidate, and we invite you to apply again next time. But for this year you just aren’t the right fit.”
“Thanks Ernesto, have a good one.”
He hung up the phone, laid back, and looked at the ceiling.
He did not feel anything.
Ernesto woke up.
It was dark, almost 9:30. He had thirty minutes to meet Blutito and Juanito down at the Chinese food and burger stand. He put on his hooded sweatshirt, stuffed a bandana and his sunglasses in his pocket and took his 9mm Glock out from the top drawer of his nightstand.
Both of them were there when Ernesto arrived.
Juanito was only fourteen years old, but somehow he owned a car. It was a 1990 Geo Storm. It was small and only had two doors.
They dropped Blutito off at the parking lot across from the Staples Center, and drove to the liquor store.
As they crossed Normandie Avenue, Ernesto saw a neon sign on a building that read: “Byzantine-Latino Quarter” above a mural of what looked like a two-headed angel. The words on the mural read:
“We are each of us angels with one wing. We can only fly embracing each other.”
Soon they were in the Harvard Heights neighborhood. They parked on the street, in front of a house, two blocks away from the rear entrance to the liquor store. Juanito turned the engine off and they waited.
“So,” Ernesto said, breaking the silence. “Why didn’t you come to me with this?”
“No, I mean why didn’t you come to me first? We are primos, va? But you took this to Blutito first instead of me.”
“Well…” Juanito looked out the window.
“I just…” Juanito paused. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“You just didn’t seem that into it lately.”
“Into everything.” Juanito said, “Like ever since Martin died.”
There was a long pause before Juanito spoke again. “I was thinking that Carlos would come with us but Blutito wanted to ask you. He thought you would say no.”
“If he thought I would say no, then why did he want to ask me?”
“I don’t know.”
They sat silently for several minutes.
Blutito drove up in a grey Toyota Camry. Without a word, Juanito and Ernesto got out of the Geo and into the four-door Toyota. Ernesto sat in front. The ignition wires dangled next to the steering column.
They circled the block once before pulling into the parking lot of the liquor store.
They all pulled the hoods of their sweatshirts over their heads and put on their sunglasses as they covered their mouths and noses with bandanas.
Ernesto charged in first and stuck his gun in the Mexican cashier’s face. “Yo! You try anything and I’ll fuckin’ kill you ese!”
The cashier looked shocked, as if he had never been robbed before.
“Gimme the fuckin’ money!” Ernesto yelled.
Blutito ran straight to the back room. Juanito did a sweep of the inside of the store to confirm that there were no customers and joined Blutito in the back.
The cashier fumbled with the register.
“Hurry the fuck up, homeboy!” Ernesto yelled, suddenly feeling alive with the surge of adrenaline.
The cashier got the drawer open and started taking bills out with very shaky hands.
Ernesto pushed the cashiers hands aside and ripped the money out of the drawer.
He pointed the gun at the cashier again.
“Where are the big bills?”
“The big bills!”
Bright white light flooded the liquor store from the outside. Red and blue lights flashed and a police siren whooped.
“Chota!” Ernesto yelled and leapt over the counter. He grabbed the cashier around the neck and used him as a shield as he fired at the cruiser outside, shattering the plate glass window. He inched the cashier backward.
As he moved, he saw the police car, next to the Camry. Both of the cruiser’s doors were open, with a cop crouched behind each of them.
He made it to the back room.
“Fucker!” Blutito yelled while kicking the back door. He grabbed the cashier by the shirt.
“Where’s the fucking key!?”
The back door was made of iron bars, with the handle wrapped with a chain and padlocked.
“I—I don’ have key…” the cashier stammered. “…owner has key.”
The cop’s voice boomed over the loud speaker: “Come out with your hands behind your head.”
“Fuck!” Blutito yelled.
They heard running footsteps that sounded like police boots outside the back door.
Blutito took a deep breath. “Okay, they only saw Sleepy. They don’t know that there are three of us.”
Juanito looked scared.
“Sleepy,” Blutito said, “Trade sweatshirts with me.”
“What the fuck?”
“I’ll take him out there and surrender while you and Juanito hide in the restroom.”
“I’ll give myself up while you two get away.”
They hesitated for a moment while the cop repeated his command over the loudspeaker.
“It’s for the clika.” Blutito said as he started to take off his sweatshirt.
Ernesto handed his gun to Juanito and peeled off his sweatshirt.
Within moments Blutito was dressed as Ernesto had been.
They faced the cashier. “You do what we tell you and you will live. Okay vato?”
Blutito took the gun from Juanito. He turned and spoke to the cashier in Spanish: “If you tell the cops that my friends are back here, then MS-13 will find you, kill you, and your entire family, understand?”
Blutito wrapped his arm around the cashier’s neck and walked out with him.
Ernesto and Juanito went into the restroom, closed the door and turned off the light. They sat and waited quietly in the dark.
They heard the cop commanding Blutito to throw down his weapon and lay on the ground.
Blutito sacrificed himself for them, for the clika. That was what he was talking about when he talked about having Corazon.
Sitting in the dark restroom, Ernesto decided that he wanted to change. He would forget about Bear Goya and become a leader like his brother. He would dedicate himself to the clicka. Juanito could use a mentor. Maybe he could even become the new “Lil’ Sleepy”.
When he got out of this liquor store, he would paint a mural in honor of Blutito.
The restroom door opened.
Juanito, in a panic, jumped up, startling the cop.
Two shots exploded as the muzzle flash illuminated the small room.
Ernesto saw Juanito hunch backward with the first shot, and his head snap back with the second.
He may have yelled but he did not remember.
He did not hear the third shot.
Ernesto woke up.
Outside at night, he looked up at the dark, empty sky. There were people all around, and police lights flashing but he could not hear anything. He was being wheeled on a gurney.
His chest hurt like somebody was sitting on him. He struggled to breathe. He struggled to move. But the intense pain in his chest made it impossible. He moved his arm and realized he was handcuffed to the rail of the gurney.
His mouth dry and thirsty, he turned his head and caught a glimpse of Blutito’s emotionless face looking back at him from the back of a police car.
He tried to say something about Juanito. He wanted to tell the police and the paramedics to go back and help his cousin. But he could not speak. The pain in his chest was thick and persistent.
He looked up to the starless black as they wheeled him to the ambulance. He wanted Juanito to be okay. He tried to imagine the words to the Hail Mary prayer but he could not get his thoughts in order.
They lifted the gurney into the ambulance.
Ernesto closed his eyes and went to sleep.
Daniel Mkiwa is a writer. He lives in the Los Angeles area. http://www.mkiwa.com
Art by Daniel Mkiwa.