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issue 18: may - june 2000 

spanish translation | author's bio

One Way
by  Jess Mowry


Robby pushed open the bus station doors, getting pushed by the people behind him. He carried his skateboard under one arm and the big paper bag in his hand. At least the air was cool inside, though reeking of city and old diesel smoke. He smelled cheeseburgers from the little restaurant, and his empty stomach started to growl, but five and change wouldn't go far. He looked down at his tummy, rolly and round. It wobbled from under his sweaty T-shirt and bobbed a bit over his jeans as he walked. Maybe he could live off his fat for a while like those bears on Animal Planet?
      He saw a whole cigarette on the floor and snagged it fast before somebody else did. Matches were always a problem to score when you were thirteen and looked eleven; but he'd boosted a Bic from the zoo-keeper's office and it was almost full. He got out of the way of the stampeding people and walked to a black plastic TV chair, which was just like the ones in Fresno. He slid behind the little screen, slipped the cigarette between his lips and scowled at his button-nosed face in the glass. He looked like a panther cub trying to snarl. His shirt was too small and its sleeves had shrunk, baring his arms almost up to his shoulders but he didn't have any muscle to show; and his chest was as soft as a baby's. A rag was tied around one upper arm, about where a bicep should have been -- some people thought he was in a gang. He brushed back his hair, as bushy and wild as a dandelion puff, then pulled the lighter out of his pocket. He wondered if they had The Thundercats here, but it wasn't worth risking a quarter to find out. The cigarette was a pussy "light", so he broke off the filter before lighting up. The smoke eased his hunger a little, but that smelly shit they used on the floor was giving him a headache.
      A security guard materialized, bored and white in a brown uniform. "You got a ticket... boy?"
      Robby sighed and dug it out. The guard examined it carefully as if it were Robby's permission to live. "One way," said the guard as if scoring a point. He jerked a thumb at the clock on the wall. "Next one leaves at seven-twenty. I'd hate to see you miss it... boy. And put in a quarter or sit somewhere else."
      Wannabe pig! came to Robby's mind, but it didn't seem worth the trouble to say it. Besides, he needed to piss. He took a long hit off the cigarette and blew out a leisurely cloud of smoke. Then he slipped from the chair and walked the walk, while letting his jeans slide low on his butt. He wasn't wearing any shorts -- the remnants were tied around his arm -- so the meaning should have been obvious.
      A tall skinny black kid stood by the door. He looked fifteen, and made Robby think of a jackal. "Blunts," he murmured expectantly, as if knowing what Robby's problem was.
      "Just say no to drugs," said Robby. "Even if they don't listen to you."
      That got Robby a curse and a shove; but he only smiled, hearing the cop-shoes coming over, squeaking their way across the floor.
      "Get out!" said the guard to the skinny boy, performing a useful function at last.
      "Later," the kid replied, while giving Robby a meaningful glare.
      The bus station bathroom was all shiny tile under flickering old fluorescent tubes. It smelled like piss and disinfectant, and both burned Robby's eyes. An old white guy, maybe thirty-something, was leaning against the line of sinks. He offered Robby a friendly smile, just like his twin back in Fresno.
      Weirdo! thought Robby. People who hung where it smelled this bad had to be more than a little bit strange. He saw the long trough and the man watching him -- he hated those things, out in the open and always too high. How could anyone take a piss when trying to stand on their toes? Everything else required money, except for the one with somebody in it. It was stupid to pay a dime to piss: he should have used the one on the bus -- he had to start thinking about stuff like that -- but at least he could shut the door. He fed the box and went in. His jeans were only halfway buttoned, giving his tummy the freedom it needed, and he simply slid them off his hips without unfastening any more. He made a lot of water-noise for no particular reason, then flipped his cigarette into the toilet and used his foot to flush it. He laid the skateboard across the seat and sat down in his ten cents of privacy. Should he go on to San Francisco, he wondered? How long would that take if he did? It would likely be dark when he got there -- too late to see the ocean -- and they'd run him off without a ticket. He'd slept on the street a few times in his life, when his parents were fighting or when he was drunk. He could always crib behind a dumpster...
      Somebody tapped on the door. "Hi, little guy. Are you busy in there?"
      Robby looked down, seeing a pair of K Swiss shoes. He almost laughed -- whatever the weirdo thought he was doing, it probably wasn't trying to think! He'd never let anyone touch him before, but his homey had, in "Rotting Park", and had gotten twenty dollars. He'd said it was creepy, though not really bad, but to get the money first. Robby sat and considered -- a Jackson would be cool to have, and then he could buy a cheeseburger. "Yeah," he said, stalling for time and wondering what he would have to do. Then he had an inspiration: "You can watch for twenty."
      The man sounded like Robby had hurt his feelings. "Hey, little guy, I think you're cute."
      Robby yelled in sudden fury, "I ain't cute, you dog-suckin' pervert!"
      The ugly shoes didn't move.
      "Stick your head under that door," added Robby, "an' I bust it to hell with my board!"
      The shoes went away.


* * *

      The hot evening air was smoky and hot as Robby came out on the sidewalk. His ticket was good for tomorrow, and he had decided to stay here tonight -- wherever exactly "here" was. It was better to find a crib before dark, and there might be an ocean in Oakland too.
      A black kid went by on a beat-up old board. He and Robby ignored each other but checked-out decks as he passed. Robby's was cooler and both of them knew it. The kid wore khaki cargo pants, which rode even lower than Robby's jeans; and his his T-shirt was tied around his head like one of those French Foreign Legion hats. Robby pulled his own shirt off and copied the local style. His jeans didn't need much adjusting, and another half-inch would have got him arrested. The dealer boy was up on the corner trying to sell to passing cars -- not an especially cool thing to do -- which showed how desperate he was. Robby quickly decked his board and rolled in the other direction. It didn't seem to matter which way, but he thought of the ocean again. His homey had said you could sleep on a beach.
      His wheels clicked cracks and the blocks rolled by. Robby stayed on a straight line to somewhere. The sidewalks were crowded at first, and he was too busy dodging people to pay much attention to where he was going. The concrete was old and rough. The curbs were different, too, but there was a lot of skateboard paint where other kids had blown their ollies.
      The sun grew orange in distant fog as it lowered in the sky. The air began to get cooler, and Robby stopped sweating so much. Although he had always been chubby, he hadn't been able to skate for a month -- mostly locked in his cage for having a 'tude -- and had put on more weight from sitting around. The food wasn't good in the zoo -- being mostly cheap shit like beans and rice -- but there hadn't been anything else to do, and by stuffing himself he could sleep. He passed another boy on a board, a little black dude on an old cruiser plank, who was also shirtless in low-riding jeans but showing six inches of snowy white shorts. The kid studied Robby as he rolled by, then smiled and flashed him two fingers of peace. "Cool," he said, which covered it all.
      There were lots of little storefront cafes, and the smells of food were a torture to Robby. The trouble with staying stuffed all the time was that it became an addiction. He tailed his board in front of a diner and thought about buying a burger again, but saw a cigarette under a bench and picked it up instead. He fired the smoke as he rolled along, but it didn't seem to blunt his hunger, and it buzzed his head a little. He pinched it out halfway, and dropped it into his bag for later.
      The streets were getting deserted now; that quiet time between night and day when working people were having their suppers and the prowling things were just waking up. Shadows were stretching out long and dark, the alleys turning to dangerous places, and doorways into concealing caves. Robby rolled on for a few more blocks then came to a stop and looked around. The buildings were old and dirty brick, the color of rust in the fading light. There were no more stores or restaurants, only a little corner market with massive bars on its windows. The others were all industrial shops, closed and solidly shuttered. The sidewalk was littered with garbage and trash. A man lay drunk in a doorway. It was all so ugly and dirty and sad -- and stupid because it made Robby homesick. But then he smelled the ocean! He had never smelled it before in his life, but he knew what it was anyway. He lifted his face and took a deep breath, then rolled in that new direction.
      Battered trucks and abandoned cars were parked here and there at the curbs. The windows of buildings were heavily barred, or covered with plywood and planks. He looked at the spray-painted tags on the walls: some were familiar but most were not; and a lot of the meanings were different than Fresno -- the same words and signs but arranged different ways. He jumped a gutter, crossed the street, and slapped his board against the curb, tired from skating, and missing his ollie. A many-colored cartoon tag faced him, carefully sprayed on a corner wall. It was cute but also menacing -- a territorial mark for sure. It was obviously old, but no one had tried to mess with it -- whatever that saber-tooth tiger-dog stood for, it got a lot of respect.
      He scanned around and felt uncertain: to go on would be entering somebody's ground, and without a pass or permission. But the smell of the sea seemed to beckon him on. He rounded a corner and there it was! He tailed his board and stared. Tears filled his eyes but he fought them back.
      It sucked!
      There was no crashing surf like he'd seen in the movies. The water was silent and sullen. And there wasn't any beach -- only greasy black mud and rotted pilings, slimy rocks and rusty junk. Dim and gray in the gathering fog was a rickety wharf that was half-collapsed and a big old warehouse with broken windows.
      Robby walked to a chain-link fence, where a weathered sign warned: CONDEMNED, KEEP OUT. The mesh was peeled away from a post, and he crawled underneath to go out on the wharf. The planks were rotten and missing in places, and weeds grew tall in the gaps. He walked to the end and sat down, dangling his legs and looking between them at oily black water where garbage floated. A mossy old tire drifted past, like something in a TV cartoon where you caught a boot instead of a fish. He pulled the cigarette out of his bag. Tears welled up in his eyes again, but he told himself it was only the smoke.
      He should have figured it would be like this. The ocean was just as worn-out and trashed as everything else in the whole shitty world! Things were no different anywhere: and if there really were beaches with white sand and surf it would be like a mall with security guards to keep out kids like him. This was all the ocean he was going to get!


 * * *

      The sun had set somewhere in the fog, but a blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the western sky. Robby sat alone in the dark. He smoked until the butt burned his fingers, then let it drop into the water. Its hiss was small as it died. The thickening mist was wet and cold, and he put his shirt back on. He wished he had a 40 ounce of the meanest malt in the world, so he could drink until he passed out and wouldn't feel anything anymore. Then he pulled up his knees, lay his face against them, and cried for no logical reason.
      A wharf plank creaked in the darkness behind, but he didn't look around. What the fuck did it matter now? Maybe it was the Tiger-Dogs, but he didn't care. Let them come and beat him up. Maybe they'd even kill him. And maybe that was best... there was nowhere to go from here.
      "Whitey?"
      That was funny, even now. Robby turned around to see the fattest kid in the world.
      He looked about Robby's age, but he must have been more than three times his weight. His T-shirt was urban camouflage -- black and white and gray -- and clung to the rolly balloons of his chest like a coat of splattered paint. His middle was completely bare; and he seemed to cover more of his jeans than they could cover him. "You ain't Whitey," he said.
      "Well, duuuuh!" answered Robby. The kid might have been able to kick his ass -- a lot of fat dudes were surprisingly strong -- but he'd have to catch him first.
      That didn't seem to bother the kid. He smiled a little -- funny -- as if at a joke or something. "Y'all ain't from here."
      "Nooooo shit, Sherlock."
      "So, where?"
      "So, nothin'!" said Robby, trying to snarl. "I'm Panthro from Third-Earth, fool!"
      The fat kid only smiled again, and that bothered Robby a little. Nobody smiled when you dissed them... unless they knew something you didn't.
      "I like The Thundercats, too," said the kid. "But, you startin' to sound like Mum-Ra to me. Wanna get put on your back?"
      "By you?" snorted Robby. "I doubt!"
      The fat kid grinned with big white teeth, which were stark in his ebony face. "Y'all be in Animal-Land, boy. Lion-o ain't gon' save your ass here."
      The dude had a definite point, but Robby didn't much care. "Who you callin' 'boy'... boy?"
      The fat kid only grinned even wider and put on a Buckwheat drawl. "Ah calls 'em as ah sees 'em, Spanky." Then he moved a lot faster than it looked like he could, snagging Robby's skateboard. Robby jumped up, clenching his fists, but the kid was only checking the board like he knew all about them. Robby wasn't sure what to do -- the dude was no taller than he was; but how could you fight a kid that size? What could you hit that would hurt them? His belly and middle were so big around that it would be hard to swing at his face, and anywhere else would only bounce off.
      "Cool," said the fat boy. "Whitey gots the exact same deck. ...Like, a parallel universe, huh?" He checked the downside and pointed to a sticker. "Skully Brothers. I seen their ad in a magazine. They in..."
      "Fresno," said Robby, relaxing his hands.
      "Yeah." The fat kid handed the board back; and Robby studied him -- his belly almost reached his knees, and his thighs seem to get in each other's way -- but Robby asked anyhow: "You ride, man?"
      "A little. But it's hard."
      "Yeah," said Robby. "I guess it would be, bein' so... big, like that."
      The fat kid laughed and slapped his belly, which wobbled in waves like a sackful of Jello. "Just say 'fat', man. It save you time. An', I mean it's hard on the boards."
      "...Oh. Yeah. I guess it would be."
      "Y'all said that already." The boy scanned Robby up and down. "Y'all sure look a lot like Whitey."
      Robby was used to white kids saying stupid stuff like that, but a Brother should have known better. He spread his arms. "The hell could I look like a whitey?"
      "Whitey's black. An' kinda cute."
      "I ain't cute, you asshole!"
      The fat kid only laughed again. "Now y'all even sound like him."
      "I'm older than you think I am!"
      "I think you 'bout thirteen."
      "...Oh." said Robby. "...Well... then why's he called whitey?"
      "'Cause, that's why. ...An', what's the rag for?"
      "You!"
      "If them be somebody's colors, y'all better lose 'em right now."
      Robby thought for a moment. There was a door on the side of the warehouse, and the other -- Animals? -- were probably in there listening. For sure he was going to get beat up as soon as they got bored. "They nobody's colors," he finally sighed. "I cut my arm yesterday. I'm Robby. Carve that on my tombstone. Can I have a smoke before I die?"
      The fat kid gave him another smile, then pulled a pack of Kools from a pocket. He carefully straightened two cigarettes and handed one to Robby. "Y'all got a match? ...An' if you say, 'not since Superman died', I throw your ass in the water."
      "I can swim," said Robby, producing his Bic.
      "Y'all ain't supposed to eat fish from that water no more than two times a month. Think about it, man."
      "Oh," said Robby, glancing down as he fired the fat kid's cigarette.
      "I'm Donny," said the fat boy. "Randers could give you a dirt-nap. ...If y'all really lookin' for one." He considered. "But he probably just do y'all best moves for keeps an' score himself another board."
      Robby didn't say anything; he'd lost his other ride that way. He took a big hit off the Kool, then checked the warehouse doorway again as Donny sat down on the edge of the wharf. Finally he joined the fat boy. They sat for a while in silence, just smoking and spitting in the water. Donny smelled like food somehow, and Robby's stomach rumbled.
      "Sound like a lion got loose," said Donny.
      "Sorry."
      "Oughta hear mine when it's hungry. So, where's Fresno, man?"
      "A long ways from here."
      "How'd y'all get to Oaktown?"
      "On a bus."
      "How come?"
      "I ran away. ...From nothin'." Robby blew smoke and spit at the water. "An' I ended up in nowhere."
      Donny raised an eyebrow. "Even a nowhere be somebody's somewhere."
      "...Oh. Yeah. I guess it is, huh. Sorry."
      Donny shrugged." Kevin don't gots a home no more. Not since his mom been on crack. He stay at my crib sometimes. Or with the other dudes."
      "It's good when you got friends," said Robby.
      "Y'all got friends, then nowhere be somewhere."
      "Um, is that... tiger-dog, your mark? It's cool."
      "Yeah," said Donny. "I do 'em. I like to draw an' shit like that. It's art."
      "Well, it's cool, man."
      "Y'all said that already."
      Robby glanced at the doorway again. He knew better than to ask how many Animals there were -- or where they were.
      "So, where 'y'all cribbin' tonight?" asked Donny.
      Robby looked down at the water. "Nowhere."
      "Guess we better find you a somewhere. ...An', by the way, I'm alone."
      "Oh. Ain't you scared?"
      "Of you? I doubt!"
      "How you know I ain't packin' steel?"
      Donny groaned. "Gimmie a break!"
      "It 'cause I cute, huh?" Robby demanded.
      "No, it 'cause you can't lie worth shit, man. Besides..." Again, Donny made a fast move; and Robby was suddenly facing a gun, its muzzle an inch from the tip of his nose.
      "...Oh," said Robby. "Where you keep that?"
      Donny smiled and patted his belly. "Where you think?"
      "Ain't it uncomfortable under there?"
      "It's a Glock. Mostly plastic. Gets past the metal detector at school."
      "Cool! Can I see it?"
      "Don't drop it in the water."
      Donny gave him the gun; and Robby carefully checked it out, then jiggled his own chubby tummy. "Few more pounds an' I could do that."
      "More like a few hundred," said Donny. "An' be careful with that, fool! The safety don't work. Why I got it cheap."
      "Oh." Robby gave the gun back. Donny flipped his cigarette away, watching it soar like a red firefly before it finally hit the water. "Y'all hungry?"
      "Yeah."
      "Funny, so am I. C'mon, dog. My mom don't get home till after midnight, an' we got lots of stuff to eat. Y'all stay out here in the middle of nowhere, you just might be takin' the nap that rots. Weasel is cool... might talk to you first... but Whitey an' Rix follow orders. An' you sure wouldn't wanna meet Kevin!"
      "Um... what about Randers?"
      "Y'all never know what he gonna do."
      "Oh."
      Donny got up, which proved how strong he really was. "So, why was you cryin', Robby? ...You don't gotta say."
      Robby shrugged and pointed. "Your ocean sucks."
      Donny looked out on the Bay. The fog was too thick to see San Francisco, or even the Bay Bridge going across. "Yeah," he said. "It does."


* * *

      Donny waddled slowly away, his jeans cuffs dragging over the planks, leading Robby into the warehouse. They came out onto the street in front and walked a block away from the water to finally arrive at a three-story building. Donny took keys from a leather boot-lace that was tied around his neck. He unlocked the rusty security bars and then the heavy old door. The tiger-dog had been painted there too, which explained why there were no other tags. They entered a lightless hallway, and rats seemed to scatter in every direction.
      "We got those in Fresno," said Robby.
      "Natural born survivors," said Donny. He peered at the ceiling and cursed. "Goddamn shitheads! Always boostin' the light bulbs! They use the wire to clean out they needles."
      "Yeah," said Robby. "They do that in Fresno, too."
      The boys climbed a set of squeaky box stairs that smelled like beer and piss. A single small bulb lit the hallway above. "They didn't get that one," said Robby.
      "Even shitheads ain't that stupid."
      Maybe it was just the bad light, but it looked to Robby like the floor was tilted... as if the whole place was slowly sinking like that Titanic ship in the movie. The boards creaked loudly under their feet as they walked to the end of the hall. Donny took off his keys again and unlocked a door that was sheathed in plywood and brightly tagged with the tiger-dog. The hinges were loose, and it dragged in a groove it had cut in the floor as Donny shoved it open. He flipped a switch and an old brass floor lamp came on in a corner. Robby got that homesick feeling again. Nothing was different anywhere.
      The shadowy room was also half kitchen. The rest of it had some beat-up furniture -- an overstuffed chair and a couch bleeding cotton -- and an ancient cabinet television. There were pictures in frames atop the TV, of Huey Newton in Panther gear, and other, smaller, snapshots. Two grimy windows looked out on the street. Beneath them was a messy bed -- Donny's for sure from the way it was sagging. An open door showed a tiny bathroom, and another door, closed, was probably a bedroom.
      But, something was different: against one wall were board-and-brick shelves which were bulging with hundreds of books.
      Donny locked the hallway door, then pulled the gun from under his belly and tossed it onto the bed. "So, what you think, Robby? Is this a somewhere?"
      "It a long ways from nowhere," said Robby. He set down his bag and skateboard, then walked to shelves. "Hey, these are real books, man! So, where you get 'em all?"
      "Junk shop mostly. Dollar a pound. An' the library throws a lot of 'em away."
      "You read these, man?"
      "I'm workin' on it." Donny smiled. "'Course, just about when I get caught up, we score us another dumpster full."
      Robby went the TV and looked at the pictures. "I guess you always been fat, huh?"
      "Wouldn't have it no other way," laughed Donny. He peeled off his shirt then plopped on the couch, seeming to shake the whole building. "Can you take off my shoes, man? I can do it myself, but it better with somebody else."
      "Sure." Robby pulled off Donny's old Lugz, and then his ragged socks. "Can you see your feet?"
      "Why? There somethin' wrong with 'em?"
      "No. They cool. Just wondered, is all. ...Can I use your bathroom?"
      "Pick up the seat or my mom have a cow."
      "I raised right."
      Donny was in the kitchen when Robby returned. A brighter bulb dangled from wires overhead; and he looked somehow savage at home, with the gleaming keys against his chest like a primitive necklace of bones. "Wanna split a forty of Panther?"
      "Sure!" said Robby. "Hey! You fixin' cheeseburgers, man!"
      "Don't you like 'em?"
      "Or duh!" Robby laughed. "Just as long as no animals were hurt to make 'em. I been thinkin' about 'em all day."
      "Parallel universe again. They always come in pairs, y'know. Brew's in the fridge. Y'all can have firsts."
      Robby got out the big bottle. "Your mom don't mind you drinkin'?"
      "Lotta worse things I could do. None of our dudes do nothin' else. How 'bout you?"
      "Done some weed a few times, but I don't think it cool like everyone else seem to figure it is."
      "Yeah," said Donny, squashing some hamburger into a pan. "Same here, man. Y'all watch them gangstuh-rap videos, you might get to thinkin' y'all ain't shit 'less you high all the time on the twenty-four-seven. But I can't do my art that way."
      "You mean taggin' an' drawin'?"
      "What I said."
      Robby uncapped the bottle and tilted it to his lips.
      "Ain't you forgettin' somethin', dog?" .
      "Oh yeah. ...Um, on the floor?"
      "Closest thing we got to dirt."
      Robby poured some onto the floor. "For all the dead homies." Then he took a small hit. He was thirsty, but he knew better than to chug on an empty stomach. Donny lit the stove and set the pan on a burner. "Make yourself at home, dog. Welcome to somewhere in nowhere."
      "Thanks." Robby wiggled out of his shirt, kicked off his Nikes and pulled off his socks.
      Donny scanned him again. "Definitely gots you a style of your own. But you probably get busted uptown like that. For advertisin'. 'Course, nothin' would show with me."
      "Can't get 'em buttoned no more." Robby studied himself. "Look like I made out chocolate puddin', huh?"
      "So, how you be chubby an' homeless too?"
      "Guess I'm new at it."
      "Don't wanna talk?"
      Robby took another drink. "Maybe later."
      "Get the cheese," said Donny. "Ketchup an' shit be there on the door. Y'all know how to slice a onion?"
      "Sure, man. Where's the knife?"
      "In the drawer... an' it sharp, fool! Don't be wavin' it around like that! Ain't the goddamn Sword Of Omen! ...So, what Fresno like? They got mountains an' shit?"
      Robby found the onions and set one on the countertop. "Fresno got nothin', man. Nothin', nowhere, total zip. Not even no dirty ole beach."
      Donny laid slices of cheese on the burgers. "Didn't y'all see nothin' nice when you was on the bus?"
      "It was night when I left yesterday. An' then I was mostly sleepin'. Ain't nothin' nice in nowhere, man. 'Cept what they show on TV. An' you never know where them somewheres is. ...Y'all get the Animal Planet?"
      "Got no cable here. We the only 'partments left on the block, an' they won't hook up the wire."
      "How 'bout a satellite dish?"
      "An', how long you figure till somebody boost it?"
      "That's gotta suck."
      "The other dudes got cable. ...Yo. Pull up my jeans, my hands all greasy. ...WILL you watch out with that goddamn knife!"
      "Sorry." Robby took another drink, then went back to slicing the onion. "What about lettuce an' tomatoes?"
      "In the fridge."
      "How 'bout mustard an' mayonnaise?"
      "Right there in front."
      "Hey, you got Grey Poupon mustard!"
      "We just livin' the life of luxury here."
      "How you score all this good shit, man?"
      "Mom work at Safeway, she get damaged stuff. ...Hurry up with the onion, dog."
      "Shit! I cut myself!"
      Donny made an exasperated noise. "'Bout what I figure! ...Don't bleed on it, fool! Use a paper towel!. ...Just... Oh, get the fuck out my kitchen, man! Go watch TV or somethin'. ...Or, they's comics under my bed over there if you turn on the light. Take the bottle with you, I catch up later. ...The hell you cryin' for now? It's only a little-ass cut!"
      "I ain't cryin', goddammit! It the onion, fool!" Robby took the bottle and went to the bed. This part of the room was still in shadow, but there was a shadeless lamp on a box. He twisted the switch, then stared in surprise: the entire wall was one huge tag. "Shit, man!" he said. "This is freezerburn cool!"
      "Just a little thing I do," said Donny.
      Robby stood back and gazed it the wall. "This's so way past cool, just the light from cool take ten years to get here!"
      "Thanks," said Donny, pushing the burgers around with a fork, while dodging spatters of grease. "I like to do a comic book someday. Maybe even a graphic novel. 'Bout kids like us... funny, but on the real, too. Maybe even a animated movie. ...Someday."
      Robby scanned the cartoon images. There were five dudes on skateboards. Totally life-size. All were Black except two, and none looked over fourteen. They were shirtless as if it was summer. One of the white kids was lean as a coyote and hard as a sheet-metal roof. The other was blond and padded with chub, with a cheerful open smile. One Black dude had lots of muscles and a serious look on his face -- that had to be Randers, Robby decided. Another was somewhere between chubby and fat and did look a lot like himself: Whitey. The last Black dude was tall and wiry with a mouthful of oversize teeth. There was also a saber-tooth tiger-dog, and Donny himself was sitting beside it. It was like having a roomful of friends.
      "Shit," said Robby again. "I don't know what to say, man!"
      "I think you just did. But, it's kinda like one of them all-you-can-eat things... y'all gotta pace yourself or you miss a lot. It ain't goin' nowhere till they tear down this dump."
      "Yeah," agreed Robby, pulling his eyes away.
      Donny came over, bearing two plates with four steaming burgers loaded with stuff. "Grub time, dog."
      Robby grabbed a burger and took a huge bite. "Mmmmmm, shit! Now I know I'm somewhere!" He pointed to the cartoons. "That's Weasel, right? He bad an' sneaky for sure."
      "Naw," said Donny, sitting down and making the bed creak. "That's Kevin. Weasel's the other whitey."
      "Why?"
      Donny took a drink and burped. "One time he put a rat in the microwave." You know, 'pop goes...'?"
      Robby laughed. "Oh. ...Well, I think I got Randers... there in the middle. An' I see what you mean about never knowin' what he gonna do. ...But, who the dude with the teeth?"
      "Rix."
      "Ricks?"
      "No, R-I-X, man. Thought you was down with The Thundercats?"
      "I am, but I ain't seen every episode, or read every one of the books."
      "Wait." Donny slid from the bed and pulled out a box full of comics. He selected one and flipped it open. "That's Rix. Check out his teeth. That's why we call him, 'Rix'. ...An' don't be sittin' on my gun, fool! I told you the safety don't work. Put it on the window sill."
      "Oh. Sorry."
      "...Anyways, Rix is the leader of the Mole-Men Gang. At first they hate the Thundercats. ...See, what happen is, the evil Mum-Ra was stealin' all the Mole-Mens' diamonds an' rubies an' shit from where they lived. But he kept lyin' to the Mole-Men, tellin' 'em it was the Thundercats doin' it. But once the Thundercats an' the Mole-Men stopped fightin each other, they figured the whole thing out an' chased ole Mum-Ra away."
      Robby drank more malt and checked the comic. "Them Mole-Men sure don't look friendly to me. Y'all want one of them dudes at your back?"
      "Maybe that's why the Thundercats was scared of 'em at first. But they was good dudes behind them big teeth. I trust 'em with my back any time."
      Donny sat down on the bed, and he and Robby concentrated on eating and drinking for awhile. "Damn!" said Robby around a mouthful of burger. "You cook just as good as you draw!"
      "Just a little thing I do."
      Robby finished his second big burger and slumped against the wall at the tiger-dog's feet. He unbuttoned his jeans the rest of the way and stroked his belly. "Shit, I'm full! An' it feel so good!"
      "They's another forty in the fridge. Wanna get drunk?"
      "Hell yeah! Then I can die happy."
      Donny frowned. "Don't say shit like that. Even for a joke." He glanced out the window. "Seem like the whole fuckin' world be wantin' kids like us to die."
      "Yeah." agreed Robby. "I know what you mean. I get that feelin' a lot. Like, they tell us in school, 'we be the future' an' all that bullshit, but they don't really want it to happen."
      "Oh, they want it to happen all right... they just want us to be what they want us to be if we get there."
      "Huh?"
      "Tomorrow is today's yesterday."
      "What?"
      "Think about it, dog." Donny drank the last of the malt and lay back beside Robby. "Y'all wanna drink the other one, you gotta go get it yourself. Put the empty in the recycle box... under the sink."
      "Be right back." Robby got up and walked unsteadily to the fridge, holding his jeans with one hand.
      "So," said Donny when Robby returned. "Wanna tell me the story now? 'Bout runnin' away from the project?"
      "How you know it was a project?"
      "Chubby kids always got cool moms. But somethin' musta happened with that. Ain't hard to guess what. But, if things got bad enough to make you run away from her, then you woulda lost weight. You ain't been in prison. They don't feed kids worth shit in them places." Donny pointed to Weasel's picture. "He was in one of them 'projects' for awhile. They feed you a lot of cheap starchy shit. It fills you up an' keeps you quiet." He poked Robby's tummy. "An' it loads you with lard at the speed of light."
      "You make a good detective," said Robby. "Like Sherlock Holmes. ...He live over the ocean in England, huh?"
      Donny smiled. "Yeah. But, it's mostly 'cause fat kids watch people a lot. Maybe you find out yourself someday."
      Robby uncapped the bottle and poured a little onto the floor. "For all the dead homies." He took a big gulp and passed it to Donny before sitting down. "Ain't much more to tell, since you know it all. My folks had good jobs a few years ago. An' my mom kinda figured that chubby kids don't get into trouble as much."
      "Mostly they don't."
      "I like bein' fat. It's sorta... friendly. It's bein' cute that sucks."
      "Like, cute ain't a 'Black thang'?"
      "Don't seem to be."
      "That's bullshit, man."
      "I guess it is." Robby looked up at the wall. "All them dudes are cute, even Randers. But they cool, too. ...But, nothin' be bullshit if you gotta live it."
      "Well," said Donny. "If it make y'all feel any better, you might get fatter, but you ain't gon' get no cuter. It's all downhill to 'bad' from here. Like a sewer run down to the ocean an' fill it up with shit."
      "I don't really wanna be bad," said Robby. "It like... well... it like I just wanna be. ...Um... that sound stupid, huh?"
      "Make total sense to me, man."
      "Oh. Well, maybe I think about it for awhile. An' that other shit, too... like, 'today is always somethin' somewhere for somebody'. Robby slumped back next to Donny and took the bottle. "Anyways, my dad got laid-off an' couldn't find no other job. Then him an' mom started fightin' all the time. Mostly 'bout money. Then he left. Then she had to work two jobs to pay the rent an' keep me fed." Robby sighed and drank. "I guess she couldn't take no more. ...Maybe what happen to Kevin's mom."
      "Sorry, man," said Donny.
      "Yeah. ...Anyways, them Social Service dogsuckas put me in a home for 'at risk kids'. But, ain't nothin' no 'home' if you locked up inside it."
      "That's a good one."
      "Thanks." Robby drank again and passed the bottle back to Donny. "Didn't even have no cable! But, I guess they didn't think I be desperate enough to jump through a window."
      "Closed?"
      "Yeah." Robby touched the rag on his arm. "How I got this." He shrugged. "So, here I am, man. On a one way ticket to nowhere. Yo, dog, can I have another smoke?"
      "Sure." Donny dug out the Kools. "Kinda like them animals that chew off they legs to get out of a trap."
      "Yeah. Guess it is, huh." Robby fired both their cigarettes and blew out a cloud. "You think I was stupid?"
      "I don't think wantin' to be free is ever stupid, man. Or just wantin' to be, neither. ...Y'all want me to look at that? I got some peroxide an' real bandages in the bathroom. I kinda fix up the other dudes. Even took a bullet out Rix one time."
      "Maybe later. It's kinda messy. An' the rag's all stuck to it now."
      "I gon' be drunk later."
      "So am I. Then it won't hurt so much." Robby pointed to the bag by the door. "They took all my clothes in that suckhole! Said 'baggy jeans was a bad influence'. ...Like they more worried 'bout somebody's outsides than what they like on they insides! Shit! Give me another pair smaller than these!" An' one other T-shirt an' two pair of socks."
      Donny puffed out a perfect smoke ring. "So, why Oaktown, Robby?"
      "Huh? Oh. It was really San Francisco. I wanted to live on a beach. Like the kind you see on TV."
      "...Oh. Ain't no cable on a beach, man."
      "I wouldn't need no cable on a beach. ...Um, y'all think there really be places like that?"
      "Somewhere maybe. But not in this somehere for sure." Donny pouted another ring. "Y'all can crib here, man. My mom be cool with that shit. An', like you seen, we got lots of food. I hook you up with Randers tomorrow. He come on like way bad at first, but he soft as your tummy inside. Just can't let it show on the outside, is all. We figure out somethin' 'bout you." He smiled. "An' Whitey gots too many clothes."
      "Thanks, man," said Robby. "This a pretty cool somewhere. Even you gots a nowhere beach." He drank, then hesitated, looking up at the wall. "Um... you think I could be in that pitcher, too?"
      Donny smiled. "Only if you keep your style."
      "Thanks, man."
      "You said that already."
      Robby passed the bottle, then looked around. Against the wall by the bed was a battered old skateboard. It was a good one -- no poser-plank-- and had obviously be ridden long and hard, but was dusty now. "Um, so, is that your board, Donny?"
      Donny took a big drink before answering. "Naw. Used to belong to a dude name Duncan."
      "He get a new one or somethin'?"
      "He dead, man."
      "...Oh. ...Um... is that why he ain't in the pitcher?"
      Donny sighed. "No. He wasn't around long enough to get in the pitcher. ...Kinda funny, 'cause he lived here all his life." He looked out the window. "He jumped off the roof of that warehouse. Next to the wharf where I met you tonight. 'Bout six months ago. I found his board in the rocks. After the cops was gone." Donny drank again. "Kinda funny, but I think he tried to take it with him. ...I go down there at night sometimes... sit an' smoke an' spit in the water. Ain't even sure why."
      "Sorry, man," said Robby. "...Um... are you gonna cry?"
      "Naw. It just the onion." Donny took another drink. "I guess he wanted to find a beach, too. ...'Least, a better one than what we got."

Jess Mowry

spanish translation 

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author's bio  

Jess Mowry was born in Mississippi in 1960 and raised by his father in Oakland, California. In 1988 he began writing stories for and about the street kids in his West Oakland neighborhood. One of his first stories, "One Way" [which appears above in a new version], was published by the San Francisco literary magazine, ZYZZYVA, in December of that year. His first book, Rats In The Trees, a collection of stories about Oakland kids, was published in 1990 and won the PEN Josephine Miles Award for Excellence In Literature. Since then he has had six novels published in eight languages, and his short stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Brotherman, In The Tradition, Cornerstones, The Pushcart Prize, and I Believe In Water, as well as in many magazines, including The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Obsidian II, and Buzz. In 1997, his second novel, Way Past Cool, was produced as a feature-length film. He continues to write novels and stories for and about young Black people, and also mentors young writers. The author may be contacted at: TIMOUNN@aol.com
navigation:                         barcelona review #18                     may - june 2000
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navigation:                         barcelona review #18                     may - june 2000