Johnnie 'Buddha' Aguayo walked out of the prison gate with no expectations. He had put absolutely zero thought into figuring out what would happen upon his release. His mom knew he was getting out, so he figured she might be the one who showed up to pick him up, but over the years he had learned many painful yet valuable lessons, each slightly varied in their particulars, yet all with the same theme; it would be totally insane for him to place his trust in his mother. So, he left it up to the universe to deal with, the same mental practice that had helped get him through most of his childhood and the five years he had just served.
He just stood there adjusting the backpack from time to time, a tall, well built, light skinned Mexican-American with a graying goatee, staring off at the horizon. He had reddish hair and a light scattering of freckles across the skin of his nose. It had been the one thing that he had missed the most while locked up, a clear, unfettered look at the horizon, one that didn't have the walls of the prison obstructing the view.
Johnnie stood perfectly still for at least ten minutes, not saying anything, or displaying in any way that he was impatient or the least bit anxious. The guards watching his every move would never be able to understand how much his mind was calmed and comforted by just seeing the horizon from outside of the walls.
In the distance, a solitary cloud of dust appeared to be following the single road that led toward the front of prison. After a while, it became apparent that the cloud of dust was being created by Johnnie's mother's van. He could tell by its purple coloring and yellow trim. His mother Lois was the leader of small tribe of diehard Laker fans and nearly everything she owned exhibited the same color scheme. The van also had a wheel-chair lift on the side that distinguished it from most other vans. It sped by the first entrance and slammed on the brakes only after passing the second entrance by about fifty feet. It backed up, turned into the driveway, and came to a sudden, grinding halt facing the way that it had come surrounded by the aforementioned dust cloud and announcing its presence with the cacophony of a heaving bucket of rusty bolts. The rear door opened and Johnny threw his back pack in and jumped inside climbing over the rear seat. The door slammed, and the dust cloud began its journey back to where it had originated.
Lois, a heavy-set, heavily made-up woman with long gray, braided hair, turned in the driver's seat and questioned, "Hey, Mijo, you starting to get worried? We woulda been here earlier except your fucking dad had to stop and pee at the 7 Eleven." She looked over to where his father Big John sat in the passenger seat across from his son.
His dad's nickname was a lie. Big John had never weighed more than a hundred and sixty pounds in his whole life, and he was only five foot six. He was a passive man who had labored in the fields on the outskirts of the city until his back had given out and dealing with the escapades of his wife caused his last testicle to wither up and die. He rarely spoke unless in response to a question, and his most worthwhile contributions to his family's fortune was his silence, his stoic sensibilities and the disability check he received once a month. He turned his gaze to his son, smiled, and nodded.
"Hey, Pop. Long time no see," Johnny said. Big John first smiled, revealing he had lost his front teeth, and shook his head sadly.
"Hi, Johnnie, we're glad you're finally out. You're mom's been making tamales for your first meal home." This last statement came from Carla, his mother's girlfriend. She smiled at him, looking somewhat like a cartoon raccoon with the heavy black eyeshadow she always wore. Her hair was dyed black but her blonde roots were showing adding to the raccoon look. Carla was Anglo and had grown-up in a well-to-do family in Pacific Palisades, but she had left home at sixteen when her parent's drinking had gotten completely out of hand. She had dropped out of college and ended up dancing at a strip club where Lois was dancing too. Johnnie had been fully prepared to hate her when she first showed up at the house, but her natural goodness had won him and his brother over.
"I knew you guys would come. Or, I knew someone would. I figured the universe couldn't be so cruel as to leave me standing there with my thumb up my ass in front of a prison where I was locked up for five years."
The van was old, rusty and noisy, and they had to raise their voices in order to talk. Lois took a deep last drag off of her Salem and flicked it out the window and then slowly exhaled the smoke out of the window too. "That's where you wrong, sonny boy. The fucking universe would have let you stand right there until the guards came and locked your goofy ass right back up. It was your mother who picked you up. Remember that. I ain't gonna lie though: it was Carla reminded me. Otherwise, I woulda just gone down to Hanratty's and gotten drunk like every other day. Not that I wouldn't have come, of course. I had just forgot."
Johnny raised his chin and almost shouting said, "Thanks, Carla. You too, mom. And you too, Pop."
Lois was happy that he had included her, but she couldn't stop herself from asking, "Whatya thanking him for? He never does nothing but smile that same stupid ass smile all day, and you gotta drag every word he says out of his ass with a pair of God-damn vice-grips."
"Yeah, well then I'm thanking him for smiling everyday and not saying shit." After he that, the conversation died stopped. They drove back to city with no-one saying anything. Lois was listening to radio KRTH and her and Carla would sing along every time a song came on that they liked. Johnny looked at his dad who was looking straight ahead out of the front windshield but also seemed to be looking into a different dimension. It reminded Johnnie of the times when he was younger, back before his brother Eddie got shot, when Big John would be staring at the television set but looking straight past it and seeing God only knows what.
It was late afternoon when they finally got to the house that Lois had bought with the money she was awarded from a lawsuit she had brought when she was injured at a packing plant. It wasn't painted purple with yellow trim when she had bought it, but she persuaded her boy friend at the time and his brothers to paint it for her. Johnny walked in and went straight to the bedroom he had shared with his younger brother Eddie. He could tell that his mom, or probably Carla, had recently cleaned it. Even the record he had left on the turntable the day he had last walked out of the room had been dusted and shined. He threw his backpack in the easy chair by the door and walked over to the twin bed he had slept in, took his shoes off, and lay down.
He couldn't keep from thinking about how eerie it was that how little it was unchanged from the times when he and Eddie would lie in bed and talk into the wee hours of the night. He looked up at the ceiling and was pleased to discover that the poster of Mt. Fuji that Mr. Cyrus, his seventh grade English teacher, had given him on the last day of seventh grade was still there. He recalled the many hours he had stared at the picture and pretended that he was standing on the top of the mountain where he received the special magical powers that would transport him to any place in the world that he wanted to be. He also thought about how Mr. Cyrus was the only teacher who ever said anything nice about him.
"Johnny, you got a gift with your reading ability. You need to nourish it and it will do good things for you."
"I don't know about that Mr. Cyrus. It's a rough place where I live."
"I'll let you in on a little secret; it's rough everywhere."
"It don't look too rough on the other side of the freeway, Mr. Cyrus. Them people got their own swimming pools."
"I know, but I live by some of them people who have swimming pools. They are some of the dumbest people I know. I mean it, they are some seriously screwed up people. I grew up poor myself. My dad was executed by the state of Arkansas right after I was born. I could read though. I earned a scholarship to go to college. I've taught here for the last thirty years. I've faced up to the fact that most of the kids I've taught didn't learn much. I'm retiring this year. Tired of talking to myself. My brother-in-law is an investment banker; he makes fun of my teaching career. You know what I tell him?"
"Whad da you say?"
"May not be much for you, but it's enough for me."
Before Johnny got locked up, he had heard that after Mr. Cyrus's wife Beatrice died from Ovarian cancer, he had ran a garden hose from the tailpipe into the cab of his blue Chevy 150, put Miles Davis's Kind of Blue on the stereo, and sat there till he died; the paper had used the word asphyxiated.
Johnny slept deeply for two hours then awoke to the sound of Carla and his mom preparing his welcome home dinner. The TV was on in the kitchen and they were laughing over a joke someone had made. He got up and walked out the back door onto the patio. Big John had just finished spraying off the concrete and was keeping busy by trimming the ivy which had clearly taken over the yellow wooden lattice work that separated the patio from the vision of pedestrians walking by. The patio furniture his mother had bought on her forty-fifth birthday was still there. There were four metal scalloped back chairs with white legs. The chairs were once red, blue, green and orange, but she and Carla had painted them purple and yellow. Everyone in the house except Johnny got to pick a number of their favorite Laker to paint on the front of the seat. His brother Eddie was real artistic and made the numbers look real. There was #23 for Lois's favorite Magic Johnson, #42 for Carla's favorite James Worthy, Big John's #33 for Abdul-Jabbar, and #21 for Eddie's choice of Michael Cooper. Johnny hated the Lakers and often wore a Piston jersey with Joe Dumar's #4 just to piss his mother off.
He walked over to the set and pulled the #21 chair out and sat down. A rush of memories flooded over him. He remembered the nights of a patio full of neighbors and friends drinking, arguing, and laughing loudly. He conceded that while life for the most part growing up had usually been a real shit show; it wasn't always bad.
His mom, or more likely Carla, had pulled out all of the stops for dinner. There were tacos, carnitas, enchiladas and tamales. There was even fresh baked pumpkin pie with whip cream, his favorite. There was a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon bottles iced down in a cooler on the kitchen counter. Lola was drinking one of her Laker Bombs, a concoction she had created consisting of a bottle of Jose Cuervo mixed with Grape Kool-Ade and slices of lemon. Johnny could tell by her flushed face that his mother had been drinking them for a while
She slapped her hand on the table and said, "Hey everybody, I want to make a toast to my boy being home."
They all drank the toast. They all made made a toast to Johnny's homecoming, even Big John managed to mumble something out.
After Carla's toast, Lois added, "I only wish Lil Eddie could be here to see this."
"Amen," said Carla.
The statement from his mom triggered something in Johnny that had been building up for six years; he sat his beer down on the table, "Maybe he could have, mom, if you hadn't had him standing out on that corner where they shot him."
There was a very tense moment of silence, and Johnny saw the always present smile on his dad's disappear."
His mother finally understood the gist of what he what he said and exploded in anger, " What are you saying? That I caused him to get shot that night? He was my son. I loved that kid. I didn't do nuthin."
"You beat up Pedro Verdado's grandmother because she said something about Carla. You put the old lady in the hospital with a concussion, and then you threatened their whole family saying that your boys would take care of them."
"Fuck that bitch. She deserved what she got; she called Carla a puta. She told me, 'your fucking lezzie whore thinks I owe her some money.'"
"And then later that night, Pedro and his cousin Felix shot Eddie who was down on the corner telling everybody he was looking for Pedro. So, I then had to shoot Felix."
Carla was trying to run interference for Lois, "Yeah, but it was self defense what you did."
"Naw, that's what my lawyer said, and the jury believed him. I had to shoot him first because he knew I was Eddie's brother."
"Then how's that my fault, Johnny. I fought her with my fists. Besides, me and Yolanda had bad blood for years. I beat her ass up at least three times before that night. Eddie had go out there acting all bad."
"Yeah, but he was doing it for you, you put him up to it, trying to please you and show you how tough he was. That wasn't really him. That was never him. All he really wanted to do was paint and draw, but you always called him a sissy for wanting that."
"He needed to be tougher, Johnny. He wouldn't survive out there unless he got tougher."
"Tough enough to get shot, I guess."
His mom hurled her beer bottle at him. It missed and exploded on the wall behind him. She stood up and pointed at him in anger, "I didn't do it. You think I wanted him to get shot down like that, like a dog in the street. He was my baby boy. I loved him the most! You're just jealous." She collapsed back down into her chair and put her head down on the table sobbing. Carla tried to comfort her. Big John had already slipped out of the room like he always did whenever tempers began to flair.'
He sighed deeply and slowly exhaled, "I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean to put it like that. It's just that I had too much time to think about that night. I read a lot of books and it took me a while, but I learned to understand that most of our troubles start when we are too young to know how things really are. I know how tough you and my tias had it growing up. I understand that you did things you probably wouldn't have done if your dad had been a real man instead of some Irish, asshole drunk. But there are consequences, Mom. There is always a price people got to pay for not playing by the rules. Sometimes, you don't pay it yourself and someone else has to pay it for you. I realized that maybe your dad had it rough too, and probably his dad before that and on and on. It made me realize that our lives are mapped out years before we even get a chance to live them, and unless something happens where the universe decides to throw us a rope, we live out our destinies paying for the mistakes of all those who came before us."
He got up from his seat and went and kneeled before his mother and placed his head into her lap. She stopped sobbing after a while and leaned over him and placed her head on his and her hands on his back."I'm so sorry, Johnny. I never meant to hurt you guys. I ruined it all for you and you were such a smart kid. You could have been a doctor or a lawyer." Her words made her start sobbing again, "It's crazy. I love you guys so much, but I do such stupid shit. I don't even think before I do it. I even love your dumb-assed dad, wouldn't know what I'd do without that goofy bastard."
That night, lying in bed and staring up at the poster hanging on the ceiling above him, Johnny summoned the magic from the picture and took himself back to the night where he and Eddie had talked about the future. He told his brother he had wanted to be a writer and to write a book like Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, his favorite writer. He related the outlines of the story to his brother. Then Eddie had told him about his wish to become an artist.
"Keep it on the down low, dude. I don't want them assholes like Julio and Ernest laughing at me like they do with Joey and his wish to be an architect."
The week before, Eddie had finished painting a mural of Magic Johnson driving for a lay-up inside the taqueria of one of Lois's friends named Hercule Perez. He had also painted a picture of an Abdul-Jabbar skyhook on the outside wall facing the busy street. On the inside wall, behind the counter, Eddie had painted a picture of Napoleon's flagship The Orient burning and sinking after the battle of The Nile River.
"Why? Why the hell would you do that?" he had asked his brother.
"Because Hercule gave me my choice, a hundred a fifty for both paintings, or a wall to paint what I wanted. He got mad when I finished because it didn't match the theme, and he tried to pay me to cover it up, and I told him, "Fuck you, Dude, we made a deal, so he let it stay up. People liked it too."
The very next night, he and his girlfriend drove up on Eddie lying bleeding on the corner of Fifth and Galveston in front of Hercule's place, then later that night he hovered over the body of Felix Garcia lying at his feet facedown in the gutter in front of Mercury Liquor with the puddling red blood from his head wound reflecting the colors of the traffic light. He remembered setting the gun on the ground and standing there and waiting for the police to arrive on the scene. The night and the street corner was noisy as hell, but the only sound he remembered hearing was the broken breathing of his girlfriend Cathy crying as she stood beneath the streetlight. She married his best friend Benny while he was locked up. He had given her permission.
The next morning came bright and early. Johnnie rose feeling refreshed and took a free shower where he didn't have to keep his butt cheeks clenched and his eyes in the back of his head. He borrowed his mother's van and took Lois, Carla , and Big John to Denny's for breakfast. His mom went without the customary heavy make-up she always wore in public. He kissed his mom and Carla and hugged his dad before they entered the place.
"Damn, Ma. I think this is the first time I can ever remember you going outside without your make-up. It's a good look for you, especially going without all that purple eye-shadow."
Lois turned and flipped him off, but it was clear that the remark made her happy. Her eyes smiled more so than they had ever had in all of his memories. Big John agreed, smiling broadly and nodding, "She's pretty, huh?"
When he dropped them off later, Lois asked him where he was going, so he answered, "Going to see Eddie. What else?"
"Well, don't do anything stupid, Johnnie. Think about yourself first, son." He turned his hands inside out on his lap. He meant it to be a reassuring gesture, but Lois notice the sharp red outline of a scar that ran all the way across his left palm.
It was a long drive from one end of LA to the other, but it gave Johnnie some time to think. It was a beautiful, sunny day and he cruised along at highway speed with the window down and one arm hanging out, the wind rustling his hair. He thought about how many times he had driven down this stretch of road and had taken the freedom for granted. He put the radio on and War's classic Slipping into Darkness came on. He helped with the chorus.
It was about an hour later when he turned into the long, oak lined driveway that led into the pastoral grounds of the Heavenly Home for Assisted Living. He saw Eddie as soon as he stepped out of the van. His brother was sitting in his wheel chair in the middle of group of other wheel chair bound artists. He was the exact opposite of their father. Even in his chair, he looked tall and his mother's Irish side stood out more in his face and complexion. Eddie was showing his wheel chair bound audience how to paint oak trees, easy to see because he was in front of huge easel with a large canvas with a beautiful sketch of the tree before which they were seated.
Fifteen minutes later, after carefully securing Eddie and his wheelchair into their mandated slot, Johnnie and his brother were flying down the highway toward a third destination. For the first ten minutes neither said a word. It was only when they flew by the Now or Never Amusement Park they used to frequent as kids that Eddie spoke.
"Member that place Johnnie, the go-karts?"
Johnnie shook his head sadly before answering, "I remember Diego getting us kicked-out?"
It was Eddie's chance to shake his head sadly, "That poor fool never had a chance? It was wrong what his mom did, pure fucking evil?"
It grew silent again, except for the road noise and the forced wind whistling by Johnnie's open window, and for about as long as it took for the brothers to rethink the fate of their long lost friend.
Another five minutes flew by, "You bring it, Johnnie?"
Johnnie answered Eddie by nodding toward the glove box.
"He urinated on me Johnnie. While I was lying there, he took his dick out and pissed on my fucking head."
"I know. And Felix laughed too, and he told Pedro to leave it to him and he would take care of Mom and her little lezzie friend." He looked back at his brother, "I made you a promise, Eddie. You don't have to worry about me."
"Never have, brother. I always known that I could count on you. But I'm sorry about how much shit I've put you through."
"Don't be, Eddie. Fate, DNA, or whatever put me into the role. We can't pick our parents. Neither could they. Besides, if I hadn't been fighting with Ma, I'd probably been there instead of you, and we woulda probably switched places. Are you sure you wanna go through with this? Looks like you got yourself in a sweet set-up back there. I mean all things considered."
"I'm in a fucking wheelchair, Johnnie. There's nothing sweet about it. Besides, Lucy was there in the car laughing as he did it."
"Word was he had her killed too."
"I know. All the more reason. She was my girl first. Then he got her strung out on that shit." Eddie paused for a moment and traveled back in time for a bit. "You know, as much as Ma and I usta fight, you'd think that shit he said wouldn't have bothered me so much."
"Maybe if he hadn't spray painted it across your mural?"
Eddie chuckled lowly and smiled grimly, "Maybe so."
"You do know, don't ya, that Ma started the whole thing over some comment that Pedro's grandma said about Magic Johnson."
"I didn't know it for reals; I just assumed," Eddie answered as he took the pearl-handled .38 that his brother handed him and placed it into the pocket of his Laker jacket.
They found him sitting outside of Azule's Sky Bar holding court with a bevy of young ladies. Word was that him and his partners were buying out the whole area with a view for gentrifying it.
Afterwards, when the deed was done, they waited by the van for the the cops come.
"How's mom going to get the van home?" Eddie asked.
"She'll figure something out; she always does."
A long black SUV slowly rolled up, and two tall, serious looking types in black uniforms got out. They weren't cops, but the Uzis they were carrying and the earpieces they wore signified something else.
The one in the passenger seat, a six foot, well built, young black guy spoke first, "You guys really shouldn't be hanging around here. That dude you smoked has a lot of friends."
Johnnie was confused but before he could wrap his head around what the first guy had said, the huge, bald, Caucasian partner added, "I know you're displaying a handicap sticker on that thing, but I assume that you can load this dude up and get the fuck out of the area."
Eddie started to say, "But what about.....?"
The first guy shushed him, "We'll handle it, don't worry. Dude was a scum bag who had a lot more enemies that he had friends. Let's just say you beat us to the punch and leave it at that."
"Johnnie's mouth tried to work, "But the women, the. people...?"
The giant shushed him too, "Get your ass in the van and scram, Dumb Ass!"
Johnnie got the message and started wheeling Eddie toward the access ramp. The SUV started up and pulled around to where they were. A darkened window slid down and the man driving called out, "Ain't that @Lois#1Lakerfan's van?"
Johnnie shut the side door, took a deep breath and muttered, "My mom."
The driver looked at his partner and nodded. The window slid back up into place and the SUV rolled away across the parking lot like it was being driven by an older couple looking for a place to eat. Johnnie started the van, put his sunglasses on and drove off slowly.