That summer in Oxnard was hot, humid in the mornings, with dew on the grass, and it smelled of the lima bean harvest and the sugarbeet mill out on Wooley Road. Now it was night, just on nine o’clock under a low, lemon moon, and Chuy Muro, in his ’39 Chevy coupe, was pulling across the oil-stained pavement of my brother-in-law’s Signal station. Chugging out puffs of exhaust, the car slithered toward me, and I strolled over and ducked my head through the passenger window. Inside, the car smelled of witch hazel and moldy upholstery, with mariachi music, full of trumpets and accordions, spilling out of the hardtop’s radio. A spit-stained Pall Mall hung between Chuy’s white-picket teeth, his black-marble eyes roaming over my face.
“Qué pasa, chico?” he said. “You seen the Zunigas?” Reaching down, he pulled a sawed-off 12-gauge from a clip under the dash, setting off butterflies in my gut the size of fruit bats. As he laid it on the seat, his hard, glinting eyes turned back to me.
“Ain’t seen ’em lately.” I said it in English, but not too steady, considering the hardware under his hand. Some cholo dudes thought I spoke a little español because my best friend Gene threw it around now and then, buying us some respect, so, even if we weren’t tight, Chuy and I, we were cool. But this was no United Nations meeting, and that shotgun still lay between us. “Saw Victor heading home after work,” I said.
Chuy studied his windshield. “Going home, huh?”
“Yep, around six, just after.”
Was that shotgun a threat to Victor and Freddie Zuniga? Or was it just Chuy’s night-time machismo, part of his hard-ass style? Looking through his windshield, he seemed to settle on something and hit the car’s starter. “’Sta bueno. Hasta luego.”
“Yeah,” I said, “later.”
Chuy motored off, a plaque from the Playboys, a Latino car club, hanging in his rear window, swinging black and silver in the moonlight.
I took a long pull on a Dr. Pepper, and went back to thinking about my life. I’d been saving money for a trip with Gene before school started again, down to Ensenada where we could buy beer. We’d also heard stories of guys scoring with California babes in Mexico, important news for two hairy-legged sixteen-year-olds.
Gene and I went way back, before we could pee standing up. We’d talked recently about the Mexico trip, but also about just blowing this town, about breaking out to find our lives. Big decisions, but we’d agreed to do something big, and do it together.
Then his voice clattered out of the dark. “Hey! Señor Eduardo! What’s up?”
It was Gene on the scene. A giggle hit my stomach and a buzz ran down my neck as he crossed the station lot. In his red windbreaker, white T-shirt, and Levis, he was pimping the too-cool, hip-rolling sashay of the street. From his wide smile, with his devil-may-care shrug, he said, “So, what’s the happs, Mr. Ed? Any dollies cruise in tonight?”
“Nah. But Chuy Muro was here looking for the Zunigas,” I said. “Had a cut-down 12-gauge on him.”
Gene flinched, staring like a little kid. “You bullshit artist. Choochie didn’t have a gun.”
“Fuck if he didn’t. He showed it plain as day.” We talked tough, but we were just kids.
Gene was jumpy. “That is fucked up, Hot Rod. Is he looking to kill somebody?”
“Scare ’em, more likely,” I laughed. “Chuy ain’t the killing type.”
“You don’t know that.”
“That’s right, so I ain’t calling the cops on him.”
Gene shook his head and looked away, unhappy with the story, then went back to women. “So, no babes through tonight?”
“None for you, Geno Reno. Besides, you ain’t getting any this century.” I swigged the Dr. Pepper. “You working tomorrow?” We worked days in the lemon orchards.
“Hell, yes,” he said, “making the big coin. See you in the a.m.”
I nodded. “Seven o’clock. Burgers at Topp’s.”
A salty night breeze drifted off the ocean a mile away, and Gene drifted off toward Fifth Street, feet splayed and shoulders hunched, his James Dean collar turned-up to the wind. Roy Orbison sang “Only the Lonely” on the office radio, Gene strutting across my memory now like a living ghost of the time.
Frostie’s was a north-end burger stop on the evening cruise, a loop that divided Spanish-speaking, east-of-the-tracks la Colonia from the white side of town to the west. Cars full of teenagers slid south out of Frostie’s, down the Boulevard to the Blue Onion, around A Street, and back up to Frostie’s. We didn’t cross into the barrio, and they didn’t come out much. Still, when three Playboys in a maroon ’48 Merc rolled into Frostie’s one night, no one took much notice—at first.
Gene and I were sitting at a table near the order window, lemon smells drifting across the Boulevard from the Sunkist plant, Johnny Cash crooning “Ring of Fire” from a radio nearby. The three vatos backed the Merc into a white-lined stall, then wandered over to order some food at the window. As they walked back and leaned against their ride, talking and eating, Wayne Pruitt turned off Doris Avenue onto A Street in his hot-rod ’52 Olds, Kevin “Fatboy” Fleischer riding shotgun.
Spotting the three Latino “invaders,” Pruitt spun straight into Frostie’s lot, bending forward in his seat to pin them with his gravel-gray eyes. He parked and stepped easy out of the car, Fatboy following, and they bought two Cokes and strolled back to the Olds. Wayne looked at Fatboy like he fit his nickname too well.
“You figure they belong here, Kev?”
Fatboy preferred being called Kev. “Fuck no. They belong across the tracks unless they’re picking crops.”
“That’s how I see it,” Pruitt said, throwing his cup in the trash barrel. He lit from a Zippo, strolling around the Merc, squinting at the owners through the smoke of his Chesterfield. He looked them up and down like they’d flunked some kind of test—not that Pruitt had experience passing tests.
“What the hell you doing here?” Pruitt said. “This ain’t no burrito stand. Ain’t no bean field.”
The three Chicanos—American-born to Mexican families—looked at each other.
“What, no comprende?” Pruitt said.
“We understand,” said one of them.
“You do? Well, I’m glad, because your kind don’t belong here. You belong”—Pruitt pointed east, jabbing his finger—“over there. No gusto mucho, get me?”
All three dudes were staring at Wayne. He bent toward them, growling loud and slow, “This—means—you, tacobender. Get in your nice, clean bean machine and get the fuck out of here before you wish you never left Chuke Town.”
By then, the three of them were moving. They got in the car, the engine gargled to life, and they pulled slowly away, wanting in their pride to ignore Wayne Pruitt standing over them. He kicked the back bumper as they passed.
“And stay out,” yelled Fatboy, like the chicken punk he was.
Trouble could find you in our town, but guys like Wayne Pruitt went looking for it.
Respect is easy to say but hard to come by. Without it you’re society’s slave, and graveyards, gangs, and prisons are full of people who walked that road. Around Oxnard, Mexicans and Chicanos didn’t get the respect they deserved, not as men, and not as people. They were hard-working, underpaid farm tools, and friction over it was rising in rural towns all across the Southwest. People mostly got along, with friends on both sides of the color line, but neighborhood boundaries were clear, and between people even more so. The Wayne Pruitts in town didn’t make the rules, but when his kind mouthed off about their attitudes, few white people took sides against them.
Late at night, a week after the Frostie’s incident, Pruitt stepped into the redbrick alley behind Snooker’s pool hall, maybe thinking about the eleven dollars he’d just won off Fatboy’s brother Carl shooting nine-ball. He was halfway toward Fifth Street when the lights went out. He woke up after midnight with his hands and feet tied and a hood over his head, in the trunk of a car parked along the riverbank northeast of town. Nobody on the county road could see or hear you down there. Two strong hands pulled Pruitt out of the trunk and cut his feet loose, then they walked him twenty yards through green, loose-growing willows and brown sticker bushes. Someone talking a mixture of Spanish and accented English said no one would know about this until the next day.
Only the dudes who were there knew everything that happened, but the hospital got the basics from Pruitt, the cops got some, and he told his friends more of it before the Chicanos got him the second time. The rest I heard later in the joint from a local who was there.
Stumbling through the sand and brush, Wayne wrestled around until one fellow lifted the hood and jammed something steel into Wayne’s mouth, cutting his lips and chipping some of his teeth. About then he quit struggling. With his hands tied, a hood over his head, and the muzzle of a shotgun in his mouth, he probably wasn’t thinking about how tough he was. Then the gunman cocked that shotgun and, before Wayne could think, the hammers dropped.
The shotgun jerked out of Wayne’s mouth, a pain slamming through his head, and a throaty BOOM bounced off the big trees and low hills across the river. Wayne fell, first to his knees, then to his haunches, where he shit himself, not knowing if he was still alive, or just barely dead. A dull, vibrating hum went on and on in his brain as he was yanked to his feet, a voice talking to him close and far away at the same time.
“How you like that joke, pendejo? Like you joke around with my brother’s friends at Frostie’s, huh?”
Wayne Pruitt wasn’t dying. They’d lit off a second shotgun next to his left ear just as they pulled the triggers on the empty one between his teeth. The live one’s roar blew out Wayne’s left eardrum and gave his face muscles a permanent twitch.
“You don’t hear so good now?” The sound hardly penetrated the throbbing confusion in Pruitt’s mind, but he knew the voice. “Well, you listen real good, cabrón, because you gotta remember what I say, and tell your hermanos in town, huh? You’re like our messenger.”
Weighing his words, the man continued. “Things around here gonna change, ése. Us Chicanos—our people—we ain’t taking any more shit off you white motherfuckers. You get me? Things gonna change. We catch you fucking with our people, with the Playboys, or any shit like that, you ain’t gonna be so lucky next time. We ain’t gonna be telling no jokes. Next time, cabrón, that shotgun goes off in your head, yeah?”
Wayne Pruitt must have tasted blood and broken teeth, his left ear thick and numb, stabbing pains wandering through his brain. One strong, scaly, workman’s hand clamped itself around his throat, the voice in his right ear again.
“You hear me, pendejo motherfucker? You tell me you hear me.”
Pruitt couldn’t talk. He nodded.
“That’s good. Good. Nobody fucks with our jobs, neither, ése. And you gonna tell your friends, like I ask you?”
“Good, huh? That’s good. We see you around, white boy.”
Wayne said later he heard some of them shout viva la something before the lights went out again.
Just coming dawn the next morning, they found Wayne near the county road. He’d barfed and stumbled his way to where a farm crew came across him, blood dried around his mouth and in his hair, his head as wobbly as a bow-legged mule. They tried to drive him to the hospital, but he wouldn’t ride with them, so instead they phoned his father. Elroy Pruitt came with the cops and took Wayne to the Catholic hospital in town, where he stayed most of a week.
The Press Gazette ran the stories, interviewing Wayne in the hospital and at home, until Elroy kicked them out because Wayne, short a few marbles, was talking about getting revenge, about killing somebody. The cops got more of the story from Wayne, as much as he could or would tell, and then went into Colonia to get names, but the residents weren’t talking much. Some local whites were raising hell, even the ones who knew Pruitt was a dick. It did die down over a week or two, but there was more trouble brewing.
Mexican and Chicano families did most of the work in the tomato fields, the frozen food plants, and picking lemons and oranges when the crops were coming in. Not enough white people would do these jobs, so the farms relied on the Latino workers, and had for years. I did my share of hoeing weeds in bean-rows, working the packing houses, and shit like that, and the Latinos know what hard work is. We needed them to keep doing what they were doing, but Bob Dylan was singing that change was coming in the wind, and if it was coming for the Mexicans and Chicanos, it was coming for everyone in Oxnard.
Up until this time, Mexican workers moved with the seasons in what was called the bracero program, and then went back across the border, where they lived well on American money. There wasn’t a permanent place for them in the US. Then the politics changed, proving Dylan was right. With new laws, Mexican-born laborers could get papers and stay in America, have their families, too, their churches, their own houses and stores, bringing in pride about living here. But what was going to happen when the workers left the migrant camps to live in town? What was going to happen to small farms dependent on Mexican labor to survive, to the towns’ shop-owners and schools and neighborhoods when all these changes came?
Maybe it would be good for everyone, or maybe not, but no one knew, and the unknown always makes people jumpy or angry—or both. When Pruitt got kidnapped and roughed up, and told his story about the vato dude with the shotgun making threats, saying, “We ain’t taking no more shit . . . things are gonna change . . . Next time, the shotgun . . .” Next time, the shotgun? You can give big odds that put a lot of white people on the sharp edge of panic.
When Gene and I were picking lemons, we drove to the orchards in an old flathead Ford we had.
“So, what do you think’s going to happen?” I said, meaning about Wayne Pruitt.
“I heard there’s some white guys planning some trouble. Something to get back at the Mexicans.” Gene was nervous, his eyes big and bright, like shiny, green marbles.
“What kind of trouble?”
“Nobody knows yet. My dad was talking to Mr. Kenney on the phone.” Earl Taylor, Gene’s old man, knew everybody. Henry Kenney sold seed and fertilizer. “I guess the ranchers are split over it, some on Elroy Pruitt’s side, talking punishment of some kind, but some don’t want to rile the pickers they need in the fields.”
“Yeah, well, who’s gonna do the field work if the braceros don’t?” I said. “Not the Okies, that’s for sure.” Since the war, the Okies had moved on from farm labor to better jobs. “Besides, who wants the Okies on your side?” I was smirking. If you were white, but not an Okie, it was easy to think of them as inferior.
Picking lemons was ugly work. At Miller’s ranch near Moorpark, where Gene and I worked, they paid you a buck twenty-five an hour or a quarter for a thirty-pound box, whichever was more. You went up twelve-foot ladders into the trees, clippers in one hand and, around your neck, a burlap collection bag. Lemon trees have thorns like three-inch daggers, so you wore canvas over-sleeves to your shoulders in the heat and the flies. You loaded about fifty pounds into the bag, climbed down, dumped it into the boxes, and then back went up to do it again. One day, about two hundred in the shade, a dude came on to my row of trees as I was strapping the bag on after lunch.
“This is my row,” he said. They were good trees, lots of hanging fruit. I just looked at him, not sure what to say. He took a step closer. “This is my row.”
“I been working this row all morning,” I said
He picked up a thick, broken tree branch off the ground, and I saw he had Chino tattooed on his arm, the youth prison out in the California desert. “This is my row, ése.” He wasn’t fooling around, maybe had a family to feed or was a smack-head.
I wasn’t in love with picking lemons, so I walked off the job. What are you going to do, fight over $1.25 an hour?
That night when I told Gene what happened, he said, “I heard they’re hiring over at Fieldland Frozen Foods.” He got on the cleaning crew, and me the stacking line, both on nights so we could spend the day body-surfing down at Zuma or up at C Street.
On the stacking line, you loaded forty-pound boxes of frozen lima beans off a chest-high conveyor belt from the warehouse freezer onto shipping pallets on the floor for eight or ten hours, or until they ran out of beans. No work for geniuses like us, and the same as lemons, a buck twenty-five an hour. Then one night the forklift driver came out of the main freezing room and threw me a parka and a snow shovel. “Here. A couple of bins tipped over in there.” He was pointing his thumb toward the freezer. “The foreman wants you to go in and shovel them up.”
“Tipped over, my ass,” I told Geno later. “The dickhead had knocked over a two-ton bin of frozen beans onto the floor of the freezer, and now I was supposed to shovel them all back in. In zero degrees. And me with no gloves, no boots, and this half-assed, sweat-soaked parka that someone had probably puked on last season.”
So I shoveled them up. Then I quit. Well, I didn’t quit, I just didn’t come back. Didn’t even bother to get my pay. Gene quit, too.
“They got jobs over at a fiberglass factory,” Gene said, “making garbage bins and planter boxes for the county.”
We were just fill-ins, temporary labor for the factory, but we didn’t mind. Neither of us saw our future in spraying lung-destroying plastic coating into garbage can molds. But the permanent guys, the Latinos? This was their life—skeleton shift on at six-thirty, the rest on at eight, half an hour for lunch, sandwiches or burritos. It was low pay, but they were proud of what they did. You had to respect them for that, and that was the situation that summer when the civil rights stuff caught fire. Oxnard was no different, as we were about to find out.
During Wayne Pruitt’s stay in the hospital, he’d had a visit from Dave Fleischer, a pal of Wayne’s old man. In fact, Roy Pruitt worked for the Fleischers, Dave and Mike, Fatboy’s father. “Uncle Dave” had a seat in the Sacramento statehouse, as well as the two habits common to politicians: pretending he was Mr. Important, and meddling in things he didn’t know much about.
Fleischer had been politicking the Oxnard farmers when Wayne got roughed up, so he went to see him, cracked skull and all, and hear his story. Uncle Dave pushed the cops to “find those hoodlums” who punched Wayne’s ticket, not bothering to ask why said “hoodlums” might have had a reason for carting him away to rearrange his priorities.
This story had roots. Oklahoma whites had come west in the country’s hard times of the 1930s, settling near farms in the San Joaquin and Coachella Valleys, and later in the towns.
“Yeah, the Pruitts are from back there,” my dad told me once, meaning Oklahoma. “Not everybody knows that.”
“Then how do you know?” I asked, skeptical of my old man’s facts.
He gave me a small smile. “I worked once stringing cable out on the Denison Grade with an old boy who knew Roy Pruitt from Los Banos and Manteca, California, before he moved down here. But the talk was he’d come out from the Oklahoma panhandle, north of Amarillo, maybe on the lam.”
“You mean like from jail?”
“I can’t say on that. But after he brought Thelma out, Roy did fine, working up from field hand to manager, and then to ranch foreman.” We knew that people like the Pruitts and the Fleischers wanted to keep the Mexicans where they were by fighting the changes in the bracero program.
Born in Oxnard, Wayne was Thelma and Elroy’s youngest, but older than us, had played quarterback in high school, was “small-town famous,” and stuck around working in a produce-trucking office. Wayne had a bit of the Okie accent, and it was from how he was raised and choices he made that he had the mentality to do what he did and end up how he did.
This was some of the background to Pruitt’s scrape with those three dudes in Frostie’s. Follow that with how the crew dealt to him down by the river, and it made for a flammable recipe in Wayne’s cookbook. To me, he’d always been a semi-goon, but after the shotgun scare, the deaf ear, and the facial twitch, maybe Wayne got that go-for-broke, nothing-to-lose attitude. He might have figured he was losing respect and had to do something to get it back. It started with him and Fatboy hiding in the alley behind Vallejo’s Grocery on a Friday night.
Marta Vallejo sixteen and worked after school and vacations at her parents’ market at Fifth and the Boulevard, the first stop heading into la Colonia from downtown. Vallejo’s Grocery sold Cokes and beer, wine and groceries, and had a few parking spaces behind in the alley. On Friday they were open until nine, so Marta often worked late or even closed up. She had a boyfriend, Enrique Holguin, the shoemaker’s son, who hung around the store on those nights she worked.
Old man Vallejo knew what most teenage boys wanted, but he would have been wrong about “Quique” Holguin, a dorky kid who had idolized Marta since First Communion. He wouldn’t have laid a hand on her for a million bucks if they were marooned alone on a desert island in the middle of the ocean on another planet.
Two weeks after Wayne Pruitt left the hospital, Quique was mooching around Vallejo’s store with his buddy Vicente until Vicente took off home. Normally Quique and Marta would take a little time talking before she phoned her folks, locked up, and got ready to walk the few blocks to the Vallejo house with Quique. As soon as la casa came in sight, they’d say adios, wary of her old man, and she’d go on alone. All the details of what happened after Vicente left, though, aren’t exactly known. If you add the known evidence to some educated guesses about people whom we knew well enough, it still only told part of the story.
A little after ten, Marta and Quique strolled out of the front door facing Fifth Street—a few people saw them leave—and Marta turned the key in the latch and snapped the big Yale lock through the hasp on the door, the way the cops found it later. They probably shuffled hand-in-hand around to the alley, where they might have heard a noise near the rear window and got suspicious. Quique might have gone back there for a gander, maybe against Marta’s orders, or Maybe Marta called to him but he didn’t answer, so she took little steps forward, leaning into the darkness. She could have stepped into the alley, trying to prove some bravery to herself.
If Dave Fleischer and Pruitt’s old man had not interfered so much after Wayne’s first beating, giving Wayne a false sense of pride and justice, and if Wayne had kept his trap shut later about looking for vengeance, things could have been different. The cops only ended up taking him and Fatboy in for questioning out of suspicion—Wayne had been knocked around by some Chicanos, and Fatboy’s GTO had been seen near Vallejo’s alley off Fifth Street on the night in question. If they’d actually been charged after the fact, some time and distance, and a good lawyer, might have got them off—that and Pruitt keeping quiet. But he probably reckoned he wasn’t going to get back his rugged, manly image unless people knew he’d done something like this, something to show he had power.
The fear that Marta felt when they grabbed her thick, black hair and clamped their hands over her mouth and her throat would have been that shock an animal feels when it springs a foot-snare or gets taken to ground by a predator. It’s not hurt yet, but it feels the pain coming. Its heart ricochets off its ribs like a triphammer, its guts twisted up like rope.
Marta’s mind would have been torn in all directions. Were they sailors, crouched in the dark, waiting there to hurt Quique and take her away? With two Navy bases nearby, there were a lot of sailors around Oxnard’s streets, “swabbies” we called them, hanging around the bars in the seedy parts of town, three or four in a group, with their crew cuts and polished shoes and hopeful smiles or sour scowls. Maybe these were drunken sailors who would do the bad things to her that men did to girls in the stories her grandmother told her about desperados and soldiers gone wild in Old Mexico?
Gene and I didn’t talk about it much afterwards, but these things came out—how Pruitt and Fleischer left Enrique clubbed and beaten in the alley, and dragged Marta Vallejo into the backseat of Fatboy’s car, where Pruitt wrestled her into silent submission while they drove east out of town, out to Lagoon Road and a dirt track that cut through a row of windbreak eucalyptus into the citrus trees and the dark, where they did the things, the violent, painful, never-to-be-undone things that accursed men, crazy with willful anger and ruined pride, can dredge up from their ugliest schemes of violation.
Enrique Holguin was still lying behind the store in his blood and beat-up stupor when they dumped Marta’s desecrated and clothes-torn body on top of his and drove away.
By Saturday night, the cops had been to the Pruitt and Fleischer homes and taken Wayne and Kevin down to the stationhouse. They’d been seen together early Friday night—nothing new in that—and there was the report on the GTO being in the area of the market. The cops had to do their job and paint the right picture, whether they were just thumbing the pages or really thought Wayne and Fatboy did it. In the end, they cut them loose but continued the rape investigation, or acted like they did.
The Holguin boy could have died and they’d have been looking at the death penalty, the real deal back in those days, not long after Caryl Chessman. Yet Kevin and Wayne were back on the street, with rumors around that the cops couldn’t prove anything, that “Some Mexicans did it” or “Some swabbies did it, some guys from out of town.” Pruitt, though, couldn’t have that, and had to put the word out that it was him.
Wayne, of course, never confessed anything to the cops, just indirectly by talking too much to his close friends when he was oiled on booze. He wanted people to know he wasn’t going to let himself get smacked around and threatened by some crazy Mexican dudes without showing some payback and proving his manhood. Fatboy must have begged him to shut up, but Pruitt was too proud and pig-headed to listen. People had to know he had gotten revenge. But the Playboys and the other vatos got the word, too. When it comes to vengeance, to payback, no one’s teaching the Mexican or the Chicano anything new.
The day before school started back, Gene and I got around to talking about it.
“If the law doesn’t do something,” he told me, “we’re going to see around here some of what’s been going on down in the South.” Gene saw into these things better than most. With Wayne and Kevin walking around scot-free, it was no surprise that trouble was heating up in Colonia, and the final story came from what Kevin could talk about after they found him with Wayne, and a little imagination.
A week after the crime against Marta, Wayne and Fatboy, let go by the cops, took the GTO to the Skyview Drive-in to see Jayne Mansfield in Promises, Promises. They took some beer, hoping to meet some girls and maybe switch cars. Once inside, Fatboy walked to the snack bar to take a leak. When he got back to the car, Wayne was gone. Maybe he’d found the girls. Then, as Fatboy got in and rolled down the window for the car speaker, someone walked up and put a pistol in his ear. The pistolero’s sidekick got in the other door, a kerchief over his face, and the first one got in the back seat, digging his gun into Kevin’s neck.
They motored away in the GTO, down Oxnard Boulevard and through Colonia, then north to a dusty orchard behind Moorpark, where they made Kevin park his car. Under a high, crescent moon, seven or eight Latinos were in a loose circle wearing watch caps and bandannas, their cars hidden in the trees. Wayne was already there, tied up and a hood over his head, as before. They didn’t put a hood on Kevin, maybe so he could watch and tell the story.
Pruitt was off to Kevin’s left. Behind Wayne, with the lemon trees near him, was a dude in a checked shirt and cowboy sombrero with the leather tightening-loop at the back. He seemed to Kevin to be el jéfe, the lead dog. A taller man held a shotgun in Wayne’s mouth again while the boss spoke clearly to Wayne.
“So, pendejo, hijo da puta, you think you do this and walk away? You think no justice comes?”
Kevin was on the edge. “God damn it, I told you, Wayne! I told you not to talk about it.”
Wayne Pruitt gargled a shout down the gunbarrels, and the man in the sombrero cautioned him. “It don’t matter what your friend says or don’t, cuz we know what we know. You are an animale, no? Your friend, too, but you are the big animal, el peligroso, the dangerous one.”
“Aw fuck, Wayne, what are they gonna do?”
Pruitt gave a grunt and a small shake of his head, careful of the shotgun
“What we do is what we do, amigo.” The face of the man talking was hidden from the thin moonlight by his hat and bandanna. The taller one cocked the shotgun’s hammers.
“Oh, Jesus, no!” screamed Fatboy.
The leader said to Wayne, “I told you last time, cabrón. Didn’t I tell you what would happen?” Wayne’s head dipped.
Kevin cringed and tried to turn away but someone screwed their hands into his hair and forced him to watch.
The tall man slipped the gun out from under Wayne Pruitt’s hood. Wayne sagged a little at the knees, maybe feeling some relief. Kevin tried hard to smile, but the gunman still had the hammers cocked. The man in the sombrero nodded, and the tall man fingered the triggers, pointing the muzzle of the shotgun at the crotch of Wayne’s jeans. The explosion threw Wayne down on his butt, knees apart now, feet still tied together. Kevin was screaming as Wayne then fell over backwards with a crying moan, like he was dying right there in the dirt.
Kevin saw a match flare over to his right, and a kerosene torch blazed smoky orange in the dark. The gunman, cold as ice, stuck it between Wayne’s legs, cooking the wound shut, setting his jeans and shirt on fire, and soaking the air with the smells of oil smoke and burning skin and blood. They threw a pail of river water on Wayne to put out the fire, but Fatboy had already fainted. The two were found Saturday morning behind Frostie’s, Kevin naked from the waist down, sluiced in his own vomit. Wayne lived a couple more days.
Quique had been hit in the face with a bottle or a bat, then in the head, and they’d kicked hell out of him after he was down. He couldn’t tell the cops much because he couldn’t remember what happened after walking out of the market. The cops never went gung ho after the ones who beat Quique and raped Marta, not like they did chasing Wayne’s killers. Wayne’s pals wouldn’t talk because telling how he had hurt Quique could have made Wayne’s death seem more like justice. They didn’t want that.
What they did to Marta was altogether another story, a worse one. I heard some of the uglier details years later in the joint. At the time, nobody talked much about it on our side of town, but people knew. It was farm country, and people knew animals, but they didn’t want to examine it as much as they wanted to examine what happened to the white guys. Fatboy had seen what had happened, and told some, but his gumption was gone after seeing the shooting, and after Wayne died. Marta’s family didn’t expect real justice, and all they saw coming for her was more pain. They sent her away from Oxnard and the police never talked to her again.
Afterward, Enrique and Kevin were a little bit alike. They didn’t talk much to anybody, stayed around the house, and went out now and then with their families, shopping or to the movies or to church. They couldn’t be alone.
Raised in rural California, Lance Mason worked blue-collar jobs before studying at UCSB, Loyola (BSc), and UCLA (doctorate). He has held several teaching posts in the US, New Zealand, and Brazil, has presented at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, and won a scholarship to the VCFA 2016 Postgraduate Writers Conference. His writing has appeared in a variety of literary journals, magazines, and professional journals, winning numerous awards as well as selection for The Best Travel Writing, Vol 11 (2016) and Sport Literate’s “Best of 2016.”
Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.
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