Bob Catterall illuminates fiction’s potential for telling sociological stories in his Editorial: Utopia on the Edge, (City Vol. 20. No. 3, 343-349), drawing on Andrea Gibbons’ short story The El Rey Bar, which he describes as, “partly socially realist, partly bordering on the mythical solar-environmental dimension, and partly prophetic in drawing on a runaway phantasmagoria of strangers building walls against each other.” (p.348). The story emerged from Gibbons’ community and organizing work in South Central Los Angeles, “So the fiction comes out of all of these stories and what I felt, the frustration and the rage, and the love as well. Because people are so amazing”.
The El Rey Bar by Andrea Gibbons
The sun fell from the sky today, about fucking time too. Weeks it had been loose, wavering, drunkenly unsteady across the sky. I watched its thread snap, though no one else saw. It hit the city, bounced once and disappeared to sink into the ocean’s swallowing. It gave itself without struggle.
I wondered about that in the sudden darkness and the mad falling of stars.
We were all strangers then, all strangers, though my fingers still achingly sought the warmth of a hand that had never known mine. They found rubble’s chill weight and I sat my eyes stone, dark and unbelieving, from nothing to nothing they turned as the earth slowly slowed its spinning. Everything collapsed to its center and I collapsed to mine. I was not afraid of death but of struggling with no one to hear me. I was not afraid of life but of living with no one to love me. I was not afraid
of my fears but their small nature shamed me, and their unmastered strength left a trail of ashes in my stomach that I pursued, fury in hand.
Fury in shards of hope ripped from a broken bottle, demanding accountability. Was it Isaac who wrestled with god in the darkness and held? Jacob? I could not remember, but I sought god out even as Los Angeles unforgivably opened her legs one last time with a no and a whimper, and screaming came in through the windows.
I was at the bar. It was not on my list of things to do, and I had so many things to do. There was just too much; everything was fucking breaking. It forced you to realize you couldn’t do all of it. And then relief came, because some things just weren’t going to get done. Fact. And you just had to say fuck it, and fi gure out your priorities. I looked with pity on the people still running around squeaking over the wrong things, wringing their hands. And then felt ashamed of myself, but you can always tell those driven by love and fury from those running on six cylinders of guilt. Of course, most of the guilty ones had already run to the places they commuted from and now counted on to keep them safe, so I couldn’t talk shit about anyone still here. But my comadres were still out hunting down supplies or dealing with today’s emergencies, and they were the only ones I wanted to talk to when I got back to our office turned community center turned emergency shelter, muscles aching from the weight of the food and the water.
I washed the soot and grime off my face, cleaned the blood from the new and jagged scratchdown my arm. Stared at it between all the bruises and thought it was a good thing I wouldn’t be dressing to impress anytime soon. If ever. My throat hurt, my eyes hurt, my heart fucking hurt. My nostrils were still full of burning.
Children were screaming, laughing, fighting. I just couldn’t handle the noise, the people, the stress and the smell. So I texted Caro and Evie, and then headed towards a quiet beer. I spent the trip wondering how muchlonger our cell phones would actually keep working. But then I stopped thinking at all, just sat there in the El Rey with exhausted content as that first cold swallow went down smooth. Thanked fucking Christ this spot was still open for business, a little room to breathe. Glad they had the right protection. One of my favorite dives, more full up, more nervous, serving more tequila than usual. But the hipsters had cleared out, maybe for good, and Chente was on the jukebox. Some of us sang. Only then did I think about my priorities. I rolled the word around in my mouth stretching out its syllables, wanting to spit out the anger and sweat, the futility of it. Or let the beer wash it down. But half the world was on fire; we had to do something, no? Something. Priorities had to be set. I wondered one more time who in fuck had blown up the first bank and most of the mall with it. I wondered if there would ever be a time again when the causes of this thing would matter, not just the survival of their effects.
I was watching the door, expecting my girls any minute. So I saw him as he walked in with a bunch of pelones I didn’t know. I hadn’t seen him in years, and sure hadn’t been missing anything either. If I could have gotten the hell out of there without him seeing me, I would have run. Fast. I hunched down onto my stool and stared into the bar instead, but it didn’t work. I heard his voice behind me.
“God damn, Gloria?”
I stood up and gave that smile that says anything but happy to see you. Especially cuz his eyes were running me up and down. You wanna see me angry? Just try that if you’re not my man. Just fucking try.
“Damn, girl,” he said, “you’re looking good. How the hell are you?” He held that “good” too long, that hug too long; left his hand round my waist until I removed it. I should’ve said something. But I didn’t know what to say to someone who’d been family, some kid I’d known such a long time. Long story. Sad story. I knew more sad was coming, and fuck if I wanted to hear it. I came here to wash sad away.
“I’m good, I’m good. And you?”
“It’s my first night out since I got stabbed. Three times, check it.”
He lifted up his shirt and I saw the bandages, other marks almost healed, bruises on his skin. First night out; kicked out of an overwhelmed hospital early I was sure. Amazed he even got into a hospital, must be the baby-face good looks still helping him through the mess he made of his life. Now here he was, already drunk, high. My heart broke a little more.
“Damn, girl, it’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, Angel.” And silence then, it wasn’t good to see him, and I hate lying. His face was puff y, all that was fine in it steadily disappearing into whatever shit he was doing to himself now.
He looked at me again, had trouble concentrating, uppers and downers together I thought. I’d seen all the variations, hoped he wouldn’t crash while I was there.
“So what the hell happened to you?” I asked. “Is it cuz of all this?” I gestured at the television.
“Nah, same old thing. You know how it is.” A couple walked in even as he said it, and he broke off to stare at the girl. Always a girl with Angel, he was a fucking predator. She was pretty, knew it too, all falling out of that red halter-top. She didn’t look away either. Not until they were passed us and settled into the back corner.
Same old thing, I thought? Same old fucking thing when L.A. was burning and they were parking tanks on the corners? Ninety-two was a hell of a riot, but this? They’d blown up a fucking bank. To start with.
And whoever had started it, terrorist cell or not, shit was homegrown now. This was more like a war, and it wasn’t just the ghetto now. It was everywhere. I looked up at the TV; saw the flames in Santa Monica and down Wilshire. Can’t say I was sad it wasn’t just my neighborhood on fire. Angel looked up too.
“This is some crazy fucking shit, ey?” He snapped into excited. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of watches. “Girl, check these out. Rolexes.” His shiny eyes were hot on my face. “You believe it? Goddamn gold fucking RO-lexes. Thought I’d missed all the action.” He laughed and lightly patted the shirt over his stab wounds, still looking at me like he wanted me to be proud of him, like I should be. He’d never figured out what would have made me proud of him, even after I told him. “You know what I can sell these for?”
“Shit,” I said. “You think anyone’s buying watches right now?”
“Huh.” He paused a minute, smiled that still charming smile. “They will. These’re the real thing. Might be a while though, huh.” He kept thinking. “Hey, Gloria.” I already knew what was coming. “You got a place now, right? You think you could do me a favor? You think you could hold them for me? I’m withmy mom but you know how it is.”
I laughed. “You know I can’t do that, Angel. How many years you known me?”
“Same old Gloria, you haven’t changed at all.” He laughed too, playing it like he didn’t care. “Girl, it’s good to see you. You know I love you like family. But goddamn you used to piss me off back in the old days, always in the house and I couldn’t smoke out, couldn’t sell my crystal. Damn, girl, you were fucking annoying. But you know I always loved you, right?”
“Right,” I said, and drank some more of my beer. More silence.
“Girl, you want some Vicodin? They gave me a whole bottle, you fucking believe that?” He pulled the prescription bottle out of his shirt pocket and shook it.
“Nah. You know I only ever took that shit after my surgery.” I had another drink.
“What about jewelry, cuz Roman knows all the spots, we’re going back out tomorrow. You want rings? A necklace? A bracelet?”
“Nah, Angel, you know I don’t want any of that shit. It’s too fucking dangerous to go out there. You got enough water, enough food? That’s the only reason to go out. You should be looking after your mom and your little brothers.”
“Same old Gloria, always taking care of other people, huh.” He had his hand on my shoulder and was getting all misty-eyed. Fuck. “You know I got your back, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“You with me, girl? You family to me? Three gangs got your back.” He listed them. “They all got your back. You need anything, just let me know, we all got you.” He listed them again, counting them off on his fingers. “You’re safe, you don’t have to worry about any of this shit.” He waved at the TV.
“Thanks.” I didn’t ask him where they’d all been when he was stabbed.
“I love you, girl,” he said, hugging me again. I hated him drunk, he’d always get soft like this, then head straight to depression. I’d never forgiven him for what he said last time I’d been around for that. Took me a while to realize he wasn’t actually sorry for anything he’d done, just for himself cuz it had turned people against him. Told me all kinds of shit I didn’t even know about, shit that he’d done way back when, when things were damn hard. Actually wanted me to make him feel better about his fucking me over, fucking his family over. I couldn’t handle it again, especially not aft er the day I’d had. Not now.
But that’s when Caro and Evie showed up. I breathed a sigh of relief, made my excuses. “Don’t leave without saying goodbye!” he said hugging me again. Goddamn, I thought, enough with the hugs. I lied and said I wouldn’t without blinking, and finished off my Red
“Cougering again?” Evie elbowed me into the booth.
“Shut up,” I said, grinning in spite of myself. “I’m nowhere near forty. Still a fox, baby, still a fox. Besides, I’ve known that kid fucking forever.”
“Never stopped anyone before,” she laughed. “And he ain’t no kid.
What the hell’s he on?”
“Besides the Vicodin and the booze? No fucking idea.”
We ordered drinks all round. Talked some shit to help get rid of the stress, made jokes about how fucked-up everything was. It was working too. But we got quiet aft er Caro pointed at the TV.
They were building a wall.
It had been almost two weeks since the bombing and the madness started. It had entered a holding pattern in the hood but the edges were rippling throughLos Angeles now. There had been a lot of arrests, blame bounced back and forthbetween rioters and terrorists. Of course, we knew round here they’d always seen us as pretty much the same damn thing.
“Why don’t they turn the goddamn sound up?” Caro asked. I looked around and shrugged, no one was really watching but us. The news hadn’t been anything but twenty-four-hour speculation for the past week, that and lame excuses from the government. Mainly people watched it now to see how many of the “rioters” they could recognize, or to watch the cops getting rocks thrown at them. You didn’t need sound for that. But now a manicured news presenter showed plans, computer-generated approximations. No maps, of course. It was a fucking huge-ass wall, a TJ–San Ysidro border kind of wall. Ticker tape claimed it would be temporary. And looked like they were building it just east of La Brea, to curve round where soldiers lined up to protect Hancock Park. At least that bit of it. You couldn’t tell where the wall was supposed to stop. They’re the kind of walls that don’t stop. Just grow, meet up with other walls.
Then they cut to commercials. I still couldn’t believe they were showing commercials. Telling you the very latest thing for looting, not buying.
“Tu creas?” said Evie. “They’re building a fucking wall?”
“When have they ever had to deal with this kind of shit? When did we ever get it together enough to take all that rage to the rich folks?” I leaned back against fake red leather. Thought about what a wall might mean. “What do you think? They planning to keep us in, or keep us out?”
Caro was hell of pissed. “Keep us in where? Keep us out of what?
What they going to do? Airlift all the white people from Silverlake? Evacuate the downtown loft s to the West Side? Clean their own damn houses and watch their own fucked-up kids? USC gonna move to the coast? It’s not like we’re not there too. Pendejos. What the fuck.”
We all took another drink.
“Shit, it’s not like the wall hasn’t been there all along though,” I said, “we all know where L.A.’s color walls run. Now they’re just finally building them.”
“Chicken-shit thing to do.”
“What you expect?”
“Racist, greedy . . . ”
“But what will it mean?” interrupted Evie. “A real wall. What does that mean for jobs, food, school, getting to my abuela’s house, what?”
“Who knows,” Caro said, “we gotta figure that shit out. Where it is. How it works. Whether we tear it down. Or what we build on our side of it. Fuck it, I say we let them wall themselves in, who wants them around anyway?”
We were ready to take all of them on, right then. Build a new world. Damn straight the beer had been fl owing. We clinked bottles at that, and that’s when all hell broke loose.
Angel. Of course. And I couldn’t help it; I jumped up. Saw at once it was all about that girl in red. She was crying and trying to talk her man down, more by hanging onto him than anything. It was always about a stupid girl, and it was always too late for talking down. They were all in it now, that stupid mindless bar-brawl surge back and forth. I fucking hate bar fights. I turned to leave when a fi st landed and Angel came flying out of the crowd towards me. I grabbed him, tried to shake him. He stayed still a minute, eyes all glazed over; he couldn’t even hear me.
Fucking mad-dogging that other guy and ignoring me like I wasn’t even there. Except I was there, and holding onto him and yelling too, and I’m strong but that pendejo was stronger, and he pushed me hard into the pillar at the end of the bar without saying anything or even looking at me and flung himself back into the fight. I said fuck it and fuck you and went to where Evie and Caro were waiting at the door.
Then the gun went off and a girl started screaming. The fight was over and people were scattering, there was a cluster of people in the back and I craned my neck to see and then there was just a body there on the floor. I could see the blue shirt in glimpses through the crowd. Angel. Just some dead kid I once knew. Drunk and high, shot over some stupid girl in some stupid dive while the city itself was at war. The placas? They were all busy defending someone or other’s property; they were sure as hell staying away from these neighborhoods.
Maybe there would be an ambulance, but I didn’t think they’d be coming either. Some girl had her cell phone. Kept dialing 911 but didn’t look like they were picking up. We could all forget about emergency services.
We stepped aside to let the panicked crowd rush the door, the white-faced kid with his gun and his screaming ruca ran past us with us the rest. I barely saw them, couldn’t stop looking at the body on the floor, the shattered head and the blood and just the fucking horror of a dead body that was once someone I knew. If only we’d left earlier, that’s what I was thinking. Stupid selfish son of a bitch, even the way he died. My eyes hurt, my skin stretched tight across the bones of my face, my legs didn’t feel like they were working. Caro and Evie put their arms around me, goddamn but I was glad they were there.
I looked around, the girl pleading on her cell phone in the corner, just one of Angel’s so-called friends still remaining, staring down at the body. Someone had fucked up his eye and it was starting to swell up. One waitress had backed up against the bar, held the other one crying into her shoulder. The owner shut the door on the staring faces outside, locked it. Started pacing up and down and watching the girl with the cell. We were all watching her now as she lowered it.
“They’re not coming,” she said with wonder, not even angry. “They can’t send anyone tonight. They said not to touch anything, it’s a homicide scene. They’ll try to send someone in the morning.”
“Try?” asked the owner. The girl looked at him helplessly.
“Oh hell no, that body can’t stay here all night, all day tomorrow, fuck knows till when that body going to stay here. It’s fucking July. You think they actually sending someone?”
The girl didn’t respond, just stared at Angel wide-eyed. She was in shock I thought, she might lose it in a second. Evie went over to talk to her and led her to the door. Who needed three gangs when Evie had your back?
“You know him?” the owner’s chin jutted out at Angel’s friend. “You know him?” chin jutting at me. “You get him the hell out of here or
I put him in the dumpster, you get me? They’re not coming for him.”
Fuck. I wished again we had left just a little bit earlier, walked off into the night free of just one more impossible problem. I didn’t even feel guilty about it. Felt like I hadn’t slept since the first bomb went off. I’d been working so damn hard for the living; I didn’t want to work for the dead.
I stood up, pissed off, felt like I’d been in that fucking bar fight. My stomach hurt. I walked over to his friend.
“What’s your name?” He started, stared at me without seeing for a second.
“I’m Gloria.” We shook hands like it was any old nice to meet you.
“You know his mom?”
He nodded, rolled his eyes. “She’s fucking crazy.”
“I know. You got her number anyway? Angel’s home phone?”
He shook his head. “We never call him there.”
“Fuck. His dad’s in Michoacán I think. And I don’t have his number either. Or his sister’s.”
“Maybe his cell phone’s in his pocket?” said Caro. Junior and I looked at each other. He was still shaking his head. I took a deep breath, stepped up to Angel, stepped into his blood. Nowhere else to step. I shivered. There was nothing in his pockets, no wallet, phone, Rolexes, nothing. I don’t know why, but I checked for the Vicodin too, gone. Stupid, but that’s what made me blink back tears for the first time. Felt like I might not be able to keep shit together after all.
Who the fuck robs a kid with no head. I took another deep breath as I stepped back.
“I need another beer,” was all I said.
“Anyone else? They’re on the house,” said the owner as he handed a cold one to me. “You got half an hour. I gotta clean up and get home.”
Junior took off his long-sleeved shirt and covered the mess of Angel’s head; he was all tatted up under the wife-beater, sureño big and gothic across the back of his neck. Little soldier boy, way the fuck out of Angel’s league. If Junior told me three gangs had my back I’d fucking believe him. I sat down. “Someone’s gotta go to his mom’s.”
Junior sat next to me, “She hates my ass. And you know she’ll fucking jump anyone bringing that news. Then be after them with her pinches brujerias.”
“You don’t believe in that crap, do you?” Evie sure as fuck didn’t.
He looked at her. “Me? I don’t fuck around with that shit. And she believes it. I don’t need Angel’s crazy vieja trying to kill me with a kitchen knife, and then spending the rest of her life sticking pins into a little Junior doll.”
“She will too.” I shivered. “She scares the shit out of me.” I took a long drink. Evie lit up a cigarette and gave it to me. Passed the pack around to the others after taking one for herself.
“Hey, no smoking in here!” said the owner.
“Call the fucking cops,” Evie laughed back. I smiled in spite of myself. I stuffed the giggles down. Way down. They scared me. I focused on logistics.
“We move him,” I said after a second. “We can’t take him to his pad, but we move him somewhere safe. We write a note to his mom and let her know where he is. Put it under her door. And then go home.
What else can we do?”
“Yeah, but where’s safe?” Good fucking question from Caro. She
always asks the good questions.
“Fuck if I know. We sure as hell ain’t going to get him far on our bikes. We could call Reese maybe. Maybe Carlos.” Tired. I was so goddamn tired angry nauseous tired.
“Let me see what I can do first,” said Junior, “our ride fucking bounced. His ass is gonna be sorry.”
He moved to one side and started making calls. The rest of us just sat there. The waitresses started cleaning up the bar, one of them was still crying. I picked at the label of my beer to the sound of broken glass and sweeping, the clinking of bottles. I tried to think. Failed. Just sat there stupid and tired staring at the bloody footprint I’d left on the floor right in front of me.
“They’re coming, they have a car. And blankets.” Junior sat back down next to me. We smoked another frajo.
“We should break into the church then I think, no? The Catholic one down the road, it’s nice.” My voice broke but we all ignored that.
Caro and Evie nodded.
They rolled up ten minutes later, banged on the door even as Junior’s phone went off. He nodded at the owner who unbolted the door to let the five pelones inside. They crossed themselves when they saw Angel. Stood there quiet and clustered together, trying to look brave. One of them just looked like he was going to throw up. All of them looked very young.
“Who the fuck did this?” demanded the short one. Junior shrugged and jerked his head towards us. They’d save retaliation for later. They unfolded the blankets and started to roll him up.
I looked down at it, and there was so much left, so much that couldn’t be rolled up.
“Can we use the broom?” I asked the owner.
He was staring at the floor. “I would have to throw it away then . . .” he said. I hoped he fucking remembered those words as long as he lived. The cost of a broom.
One of the waitresses came up, handed me a roll of paper towels. I unwound them slowly, used them to shovel up the pieces of Angelito. So many pieces, tears rolling down my face, asco crackling down my spine. I scraped up what I could and threw it into the blanket, stared at my fingers. Stared at the wandering trails I had left in the blood on the floor, almost like fingerpaint. I wanted to throw up. I went to the bathroom and did, then cleaned up in the sink, watched the blood and bits roll down the drain until the water ran clear and got so hot it was burning my hands.
When I came out it was just Evie and Caro waiting for me, the others had left. It already reeked of bleach.
“You wanna go to the church?” Evie asked. I nodded. “Let’s walk the bikes then, I don’t feel like riding.” We pushed bikes through an almost empty night, the streetlights all broken but the reflected red-orange of fire lit up the darkness and the angry breathing of a burning city. We passed broken glass and locked grates; everything was crusty black. The air stung my throat and my eyes. I couldn’t even tell if it was the smoke or if I was crying again. I fucking hated
When we got to the church they were already in, the wire had been cut and forced jaggedly upwards, some of the shattered glass of the window it protected lay on the pavement beside the open door. It was cool and very dark inside, smelled like wax and incense. They’d laid him on the ground in front of the altar, Junior’s bloody shirt back covering the place where his face should’ve been. Angel’s hands lay peacefully at his sides. He was still wearing his hospital bracelet. They were lighting votive candles, surrounding him in a circle of light. It was strangely beautiful, silent tears that I couldn’t stop rolled down my cheeks, collected along my nose and chin. They lit candles in front of the virgen too, the light flickered across her calm face and I felt like praying for the first time in years. We all stood quiet then, a moment of silence.
We filed outside, closing the door behind us, wedging it shut with stones.
Junior hugged me. “You going to be all right?” I nodded, though I couldn’t stop the tears. I couldn’t stop them. I never fucking cry. He gave me a folded up piece of paper. “I’ll go to his mom’s. Here’s my cell, call me later, okay? Let me know you’re all right.” I shoved it into my pocket.
“You guys okay to get her home?” he asked Caro and Evie.
“Claro,” said Evie, putting her arm around my shoulders. “We should take her to Maria’s, no? That’s close, we can walk there, stay the night.”
“Good idea,” Caro replied. Then stared at Junior a minute before we left . “Thanks, man. You’re way too good for this gangster shit, you know? Everything’s changed now. Come help us, we need all the help we can get.”
He shrugged. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but he smiled at me.
When we got to Maria’s I unwrapped the paper. A couple of large pills fell out. He had written his number, and then in sloppy letters underneath: “vicodin, feel better.”
I was asleep, half asleep, dreaming perhaps. And then yet another thought caught me on its hook, yanked me from my own depths with horrifying suddenness. I came up into awareness, gasping.
My thoughts prey on me.
I don’t know when they started to have teeth, I don’t know what they want from me, I don’t know what more they can take after landing me curled around my stomach on the floor, tasting my own blood. I suppose these are not times for sleeping. But I ache for it. I feel the tiredness calcify my face, bruise my eyes, carve itself into my forehead.
There is so much I have to do. A harvest of tragedies in the lives of the ones I love. The things I can’t answer about how people get by in this world. The fucking wall. On my eyelids I see pieces of Angel, in a silhouette surrounded by candles.
Andrea Gibbons is Research Assistant, Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit, University of Salford.
With thanks to the publishers of the short story collection, ‘Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail!’ (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011), for permission to publish Gibbons’ insightful and heart-stopping story in full.
Debbie Humphry is web editor for CITY-analysis, a researcher and photographer, currently a research fellow at University of East London’s (UEL) Centre for East London Studies (CELS), with interests in housing, neighbourhood, class, social mobility, social justice and participative visual methodologies. http://www.debbiehumphry.com