One Day the Children Will Set Themselves on Fire (Fiction)
By Fernando RomeroFernando, graduated from Cal State Long Beach after studying Creative Writing and Journalism. He is a co-founding member of Dreamers Adrift and co-founding member of the AB 540 group FUEL @ Cal State Long Beach. He is also the Coordinator for the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, which is an immigrant-rights coalition in the Inland Empire region of California. He is also a contributing writer to the Huffington Post on the Dream Activist series.
It sounded like a clap of the hands and then I heard my moms yelling at me and my brothers to duck down. We peered through the window and saw an older boy inside a car with a gun in his hand. The neighborhood came out slowly, almost as if searching for something else while at the same time the rain began to thump down and impinge on the asphalt.
I remembered his face; you could tell that it was definitely a child. He looked like Baby Jesus, a Black Baby Jesus lying peacefully on the street, face covered in blood like in the Sixth Station of the Cross. The only time he looked disturbed was when he was wheeled onto a stretcher onto the ambulance. His name was Julian, he was about my age, maybe a little older, all I knew about him was that he lived in the housing projects seven blocks up on Slauson and came down here every afternoon to play the dozens with his friends from school. We had just come from Peru and the English that I did know was mostly yes, thank you, my name is, no English. I remember on the first day of school, my moms, with that permanent worried look of hers, told me to never let anyone look down on me. Julian was the first kid who talked to me and was the one who told me where the boy’s bathroom was and where to stand to wait for the buses and even guided me through the cafeteria and helped me figure out the tickets for the free lunches. After that, we didn’t hang out at school as much, but we got used to each other’s presence as I would see him every day after the school bus would drop us off near the Alameda Corridor and I would walk down where the streets closed in and curved a bit, I would see him outside the corner liquor store and he’d wave at me or give me a head nod almost all the time.
The day after he was killed in a drive-by shooting, my moms told me to take a different route when coming home. So I did, and my walk took me through side streets so small and narrow that resembled a labyrinth and I ended up getting lost on Slauson. I went into an Ethiopian restaurant to ask for directions back to my house. When I made it back home, the rest of the guys were in the middle of the street throwing Julian’s shoes up at the power lines. There was already about six or seven pairs of shoes hanging up there, one of them was a pair of All Stars that’d been hanging there for so long that we started saying that they belonged to Chuck Taylor himself.
South Central had always been a poor neighborhood that resembled a third world country. It was dirty and filthy. The sidewalks had broken cracks and the roots of age-old tress protruded through and damaged the cement. The garbage which idled about in the alleys only seemed to gather flies and more garbage. The old timers would sympathetically say that South Central was a neighborhood with “character.” The neighborhood is quiet during the day while the moms are off at work at local diners or fast-food restaurants and the pops are over in Downtown hard at work at clothing factories or working in warehouses that make and ship out tools for heavy construction work. The streets would liven up on weekends when the liquor stores had their doors opened all night and the drunkards were free to roam the night like owls and scream and yell like hyenas.
We lived across the Carmelitos Housing Projects in a small beige-colored apartment building. It was an isolated apartment building pressed into the middle of this block that looked like a medieval dungeon with black metallic bars adorning the windows. The former tenant of our apartment was a Haitian woman who occupied her time as a curandera. Everybody said she was insane and when we moved in, the house reeked of incense. We found that the closet was littered with useless papers and old books. Among them I found copies of The Triumph of Virtue or the Triumph of God, The 1001 Nights and the Memoirs of Malcolm X. We also found a statue of the Black Virgin of Guadalupe and a litany of liquid remedies and potions.
The neighborhood had an insular quality that had always been hard to describe. Every time we passed by the railroad tracks on 103rd Street and Central Avenue, my moms would point and say that it was precisely there where the world had ended, “ Mira, ahi es donde se acabo el mundo.” She would point to the tracks with disdain citing the nights when trains started to stop by with frequency in the middle of the night. This was shortly after we had come from Peru. No one in the neighborhood knew with an exact scientific certainty where that train came from or why it stopped there at such a late hour of the night. The train, which stopped nightly at eleven sharp, was looted by a bunch of desperate fools; fools who were hungry and sought canned food to quiet their cursed stomachs, while others wanted a score of any valuables to sell later. One night, the merchandise inside those trains went from groceries and televisions to AK 47s and Uzis. Overnight, the streets became infested with guns and around here, people started to talk and say that it was the government, the CIA, the FBI or maybe even the local police who planted those guns in the trains and dropped them off, but no one ever found out and it became one of those legendary stories that got clouded and lost in reality like an ethereal dream.
The housing projects had a dirt lot and this is where the boys would play under sun and shadow. We played well into the night, every night before any one of us had eaten our dinners. Most of the kids from the block were Mexican, but there were some Salvadoran and Nicaraguan kids whose parents had come here because of the wars going on their countries. Sometimes the Cambodian kids would join us too in breaking the silence with our shouts as we ran and jumped through the muddy puddles of filth that collected in the middle of the sidewalk. Most of the kids I assumed were here like me; with no papers. But I once heard that Hector, one of the Mexican kids, said his family came here on an airplane, and I called him a liar because I couldn’t understand how that was possible to be here without papers and have flown in on a plane.
Around the same time, I remember that Father Fernando of St. Anathanasius Church had died of a stroke in our apartment building one December night on one of his visits through the neighborhood. The death of the priest buried a musty air into the tenement and left the church in limbo as it looked to fill the void. The junkies, the pimps and the cherry girls no longer had a menace of piety, but for everyone else, it meant religion was now dead.
One Summer afternoon at around five, only weeks after Julian‘s death, seventeen members of the Institue of Religion came to South Central. They were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints They started asking us questions, while me and the other boys were in an alley, lined up, side-by-side and against a wall.
At first, the neighborhood shunned the Mormons. They came door-to-door handing out pamphlets and newsletters about their congregation only to have doors slammed in their face and people hide from view. They came in sedans, dressed in immaculate white clothes and spoke proper English. My moms would sometimes use me as an interpreter to tell them that we didn’t want any of their help or to go to their church. We just can’t go, I would tell them.
Yet, they continued to come and they started to help revive the neighborhood by picking up the trash, painting the graffiti-tagged walls in vibrant blue and yellowish colors.
My first interaction with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was with Hannah, who like most of the volunteers looked to me to be in high school. The first time I saw her, my heart leapt. I was dumbstruck by her mesmerizing blue eyes, her cute small nose, soft blonde hair, perfect teeth, beautiful smile and creamy white skin.
I wanted to help with the restoration of the neighborhood. Some of the guys also volunteered to help just to pass the time in the Summer. They also started bringing us lunches and food entrées just like the ones we got at school. I didn’t really know or interact with the other volunteers from the Institute. Everyone was a bit shy around each other which made things unusual, but the members of the Institute walked around with an air of confidence I had never seen before. For the most part, and I mean almost completely, I tagged alongside Hannah. She would have me follow her around and help her out with random tasks like picking up trash or going to each house and apartment to let them know about the restoration of the neighborhood. That’s when we got to know each other. She was seventeen, five years older than me and had grown up and still lived in Huntington Beach and attended the Bible Institute of Los Angeles even though she was Mormon. She wanted to know about me and mostly she would ask and I told her about stuff like school and what it was like to have grown up and live in South Central.
On one of those days, Hannah was up a ladder painting a window frame in an apartment complex. We were gathered around the ladder when she lost her footing and fell. Her bottom landed on a puddle of mud. It was funny and we all laughed about it. When she climbed back up, the water stain and the mud on her light blue jeans was concentrated around her butt and made her underwear visible with the brown stain delineating her figure. The six of us held our breath and stared with embarrassment while she continued to work.
Weeks passed and the work was almost done for the kids from the Institute. It was hard for anybody to tell whether or not any improvement had been made. The neighborhood and the nearby housing projects now resembled a cluster of vibrant-colored houses. Scattered throughout the streets and varying from house to apartment building, was yellow and blue and red and green; the colors were all over the place and the run down houses reminded me of the shanty towns in Brazil from a movie I’d seen once.
I was saddened to know Hannah would leave and never come back. We were standing outside the apartment where we lived one afternoon with the front door open. Inside the house and down the hallway, my moms could see us talking as she busied herself and prepared dinner. Hannah was eating an ice cream sandwich as she talked about volunteering and working in South Central and how it had given her a valuable learning experience. I asked her if she wanted to come inside and sit down and she said yes. I gasped, the couch still had the manufacturer’s plastic wrapping so I laid a blanket on top of so she could sit. Then I excused myself to the bathroom and I took the basket (full of toilet paper that was covered in shit) and hid it under the sink. I stored all of my moms’ work cleaning supplies for no one to see. When I came back to the living room, my moms was trying to talk to her. I interjected and resumed our conversation. Hannah said, I’m gonna be sad to leave. As she talked, I was mesmerized by the movement of her blonde locks and the incessant jumping of her big blue eyes. Do you wanna hang out some time, she then asked. I responded without even a word and simply nodded. Okay, meet me at the mall a day from tomorrow, she said. Okay, I’ll see you then, I said as I walked her outside.
The next day, I spent it thinking of our encounter on the following day. I thought of how it would be great be to see her. Maybe we can get ice cream, I thought. When Martin came for me, I noticed he had bruise on his face. We were up against the church walls, while a small gun was being passed around from hand to hand of every neighborhood kid. I tried to ask Martin about the bruise over his left eye and the way Martin told it was that his pops got mad at him for coming home late the other night. That his moms tried to stick up for him and then his pops started yelling at both of them and when Martin made a run for it, his pops caught up to him and started smacking him around. I forget whose gun it was that was being passed around, but everyone else seemed to be interested in looking at it and getting a feel for it. I wasn’t ready to go back home yet, so I hung out at Martin’s house knowing that his parents were not there. We were watching TV when his older brother Ediberto, started smoking crack right in front of us. Martin gave him a look of disgust or disbelief, to which Ediberto simply shrugged uttering, whatever, man…
The following day, I got up early, collected the monthly allowance my parents gave me. I told my moms I was going over to Martin’s house and would come back later in the afternoon. Hannah had said to meet her at the mall at around noon. I caught the first bus and it dropped me at the foot of the railroad tracks. From then on, I walked a couple of more blocks to catch another bus that took me to West Los Angeles.
I stepped into the shopping center. I didn’t know where she was going to be at. I walked around the large department stores, staring at the window displays of mannequins with coats that covered their rather pink skin tone on them. I was hungry. I wanted to get a pretzel from one of the vendors in the food court, next to the escalators, but I chose not to. I waited. I only had a fistful of dollars I had saved up for Hannah and me. I felt a bit of remorse for spending money, the way my moms reprimanded me for taking food from the refrigerator when I knew she would need it for the rest of us.
And then I saw her. She was wearing a pink headband, blue jeans and a red t-shirt. I’m so glad you could make it, Hannah said. Come on let’s go, I know this great ice cream place, she said with a smile as we walked past shoppers with bags and boxes of expensive clothes and shoes.
When we got to the Yogurt Universe, I ordered for the both of us two bowls of vanilla-flavored ice cream topped with almonds while she stood right next to me. When we got our ice cream, I looked for a place to sit. Actually, over here, she said. We walked over to a table crowded with other teenagers. I saw a couple of them reading a book which I couldn’t recognize from the cover, but it resembled a Bible because it was really thick and had nice, gilded lettering on the front. My eyes widened as I tried to make sense of the situation and why she was taking us to a table crowded with other kids. Hannah and I stood at the head of the table while she introduced me. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen them around, but this is Jerrod, that’s Rebecca, Christopher, that’s Cassidy over there, Spencer, Tyler and this is right here is Stacy. Everyone greeted me simultaneously with a “hi Joaquin.”
Their names jumbled around in my head so much that I forgot to greet or even acknowledge that I was learning their names. Can you guys make some room, Hannah asked. Even when she was demanding, she exuded benevolence. I didn’t want them to make room. I felt queasy for the first in a long time. There was only one empty chair at the table. Two of the guys stood up and made their way across the food court to grab an unoccupied chair from a different table and drag it over. It’s okay, I said. You don’t have to do that, I actually have to go anyway. Hannah turned around and looked at me with squinted eyes. Oh, really, she asked. She looked at me with disbelief. Everyone’s eyes were now cast on me. I wanted to go. Something that was stuck in my throat made me stutter. Her big blue eyes got bigger as she looked at me. I don’t know why, but I didn’t feel like being there anymore. I have to go, I said bluntly. Hannah looked at me and I looked back at her. I just have to go, I said. Hannah said, okay, I’ll see you later I guess she said and I nodded.
I took my bowl of ice cream and walked out. On my way out, I saw a little boy crying over a toy he had in his hand. His tantrum caused him to smash it on the floor. The mother and other passersby looked on. I felt bad for the little boy because he couldn’t appreciate nice things. I hurried out of there to get home. I thought that at any moment Hannah would be rushing to get me. I wanted her to. I wanted to go back to that table with her. I seemed to be mad at myself. On the way out, people looked at me weirdly. I fought back a tear or two, but I knew that it was not the same.