By Ned Rodriguez
(Originally Published in Journeys V)
They came shuffling out of the river mist, their heads down, eyes half closed, up the embankment, to the river trail. The taller of the two, Billy, looking older than his thirty years, had shaggy, dirty brown hair that was matted with the remnants of the underbrush where they had slept. His clothes were disheveled, stained with days of living. He wore an ancient blue suit coat, threadbare and frayed at the collar and cuffs. His head was bare. His dirty brown slacks shined at the knees and seat. His skin, dark from years of exposure to the unforgiving sun of the Arizona and California farmlands, was mottled and scarred. His hooded eyes showed the yellowing sclera of the chronic alcoholic.
Johnny, the shorter of the two, had first met Billy and the Preacher after being discharged from the Army. He was hitchhiking from Los Angeles to Delano, a small farm community where he was born and raised. At a fast food stop in San Fernando, he was able to talk a farm contractor, an old Korean war vet, into giving him a lift in a truck carrying laborers from Brawley in Imperial County to the San Joaquin Valley farmlands.
When he jumped into the back of the truck, the men made room beside the lift gate. With a slight wave of his hand to the group, he sat beside the only two gringos.
“Hey, man, do you speak English?” Billy, smelling of cheap wine raised his chin toward Johnny as he spoke.
“Yes. Why?” Johnny’s eyes darted back and forth between the two men.
“Oh, I was just wondering. The Preacher and I don’t get to talk to many folks. Most of these guys only talk Mexican. The bosses never talk to us, so all we got is each other.”
Johnny lips tightened and turned down before he answered, “first, they don’t talk Mexican, they speak Spanish. Second, I’m not going to work the fields so I won’t be around. I’m just going to visit my folks in Delano. Sorry.”
The old man put his hand out as if giving a stop sign, “don’t take offense, mister, I’ve tried telling Billy that for the two years we’ve been together. He just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t mean anything by it. He really is a good guy, just a little on the slow side.”
“I’m sorry, too.” Johnny said, expelling a breath he didn’t know he was holding and extending his hand. “I just got back from ‘Nam and I’m having a tough time adjusting. Sorry.”
The old man reached out and shook Johnny’s hand, “they call me Preacher. He’s Billy,” then turning to Billy he continued, “shake the mans hand, Billy.”
That was his introduction to the two men who would become a part of his life. Except for the short time Johnny stopped to visit his folks, the three had been together ever since.
Now here they were, half starved and in search of some miracle. In contrast to the way Billy appeared, Johnny was aware that he was healthier in both appearance and fact. Johnny was always surprised when he remembered that he and Billy were the same age. Johnny’s body was broader and more muscular even though the three, Billy, Preacher and he had been on the road together now for almost eight years. His dark skin was smooth and seemed to have an inner glow. Maybe it was because of his mestizo heritage. He always made sure to have his clothes clean, his body washed, and his hair combed. It was not only his military training, but also the was his parents had insisted that he present a good image to the world around him. He wore a dungaree jacket with a lamb’s wool lining over an old khaki shirt and blue jeans. His clothes were clean and neat. They both wore tan work boots that appeared to be identical except for the knife and scabbard that Johnny kept tucked into the inner side of the left one. When Johnny looked at Billy, he realized that Billy was feeling as desperate as he. They looked in both directions as they climbed, before walking west toward the distant roadway. It was early in the spring of 1978.
“Johnny, whaddya think we oughtta do about the Preacher?” Billy had a soft hoarse voice. The worry was like a stamp on his rough, unshaven face.
“I don’t know, Billy,” he answered. His voice, although deep and resonant, conveyed his feeling of desperation, “he needs some food, but I haven’t got a nickel.” Johnny was worried about the Preacher. He’d been so weak from hunger and worry that Johnny and Billy had to help him off the freight when they came into town last week. The Preacher had fallen when they were walking down to the river from the railroad tracks. They had left him at the camp this morning, sleeping under the lean-to that they had fashioned to create a barrier from the wind and sun. The Preacher hadn’t been well the last month or two. The three of them, the Preacher, Billy and he had been on the road from Arizona to the San Joaquin Valley. It had taken over a month just to get to the outskirts of San Bernardino. The Arizona cops had thrown them in jail for vagrancy. When they got out, the cops would hassle them every time they tried to panhandle. Their luck was so bad that even the soup kitchens always seemed to be closed or out of food. The most work any of them ever got was a couple of days at a car wash and one day doing some yard work for an old couple in Indio. Food had become hard to find. The Preacher, their friend for these last eight years and older by twenty or more years, had become so depressed that he seemed to have lost interest in eating or living. Johnny figured the Preacher had lost twenty pounds in the last couple of months.
They began walking to the entrance of the small city park. There they would go north to the coffee shop next to the county offices. It was half past seven, and the workers would be coming in for their morning coffee. The customers were almost always good for a little “touch” and, sometimes Amelia, the Mexican owner, would give them a few day old donuts if her old man wasn’t around.
“Johnny, you talk Mexican. Why don’t you tell Amelia about the Preacher? Maybe she knows what we can do to help.”
“Okay, Billy, I’ll talk to her if I get a chance.” It was already beginning to get light.
There was a bathroom at the top of the hill, close to the entrance of the park. It was a small, single pit toilet with a water spigot on a free standing iron pipe beside it. Turning to Billy, Johnny said “We gotta clean up before we get there or we won’t get a penny, Billy. Take off your jacket and shake it out, then we’ll comb your hair, okay?”
They used their hands to collect water to wipe the grime from their faces and slick back their hair. Johnny took an old black comb from his inside pocket and began combing Billy’s hair. Billy stood there as he did when his mother would groom him in those days long past. After straightening and brushing off their clothes as best as they were able, they continued out of the park and turned north toward town.
As they were approaching the coffee shop, Billy asked, “Johnny, don’t you think he needs more than donuts. Maybe we ought to go to the market and pinch some food for him.”
“And what happens to him if they haul us off, Billy?” Johnny shook his head as he looked at Billy, “there wouldn’t be anybody left to take care of him. I don’t think we can take the chance.”
“Johnny, the old Arab that runs the Mom and Pop store on Jefferson is always busy cleaning. If two of us were to go there, we could boost some food for the Preacher. And it’s real close to the camp. It wouldn’t take long to get back and feed him. Whaddya think?”
Johnny looked at Billy for a moment as if in deep thought. “Billy, you’re right, we have to do something, but let’s wait until we try getting something from the folks at the coffee shop, okay?”
As they approached Amelia’s store, Luis, her husband came out and met them, “Get out of here or I’ll call the cops. All you tramps keep bothering our customers. Then they get mad and don’t buy anything. You cabrones go somewhere else and beg. You’re bad for business.”
The two men turned and walked off, their shoulders hunched, wearied heads hanging. They began walking toward the city center. Johnny thought it over before deciding that they had no choice. They would have to try and steal some food from the Arab’s convenience store after all. Johnny had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. Stealing was something he had been able to avoid since he started living on the streets eight years ago. When he was released from the service, he promised himself that he would live a better life. A life that would make his parents proud. He remembered his days in ‘Nam and the things he had done. They were the nightmares that tortured his life. His parents had raised him to be an honorable man. “Juanito, your soul is the last thing you will have in this life,” they would say, “so protect it from the evils of the world.” And, “Be good, mijo,” they would say, “and God will keep you safe.” If they only knew the evils he had committed.
He had volunteered for the Army right after High School and was sent to Vietnam immediately after training. He hadn’t led a sheltered life, but when he first saw a prisoner being questioned, the brutality was more than he had imagined. The methods used by the interrogators caused him to go outside and vomit. Within a few months, Johnny was helping. He didn’t enjoy the experience but he became inured to it. Soon he was assigned to a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol team. The three man teams would go out into enemy territory for weeks at a time. It was there that he learned to live off the land by stealing and killing without remorse, and lost his humanity in the process.
“Look, Billy, I’m quicker with my hands,” Johnny said as if he was soliciting an opinion from Billy, “so do you think, maybe, I should go grab something? You get him away from the front of the shop and I’ll do it.”
“Okay, Johnny, I’ll go to the back of the store and do something to make him come to me. Don’t worry, I’ll do a good job.”
The palms of his hands sweating, Johnny worried over what would happen if they were caught. If they went to jail they would at least have food and a bed, but what would happen to the Preacher. In the condition he was in now, he would not be able to take care of himself. Johnny was afraid he would die if Billy and he failed and the Arab turned them over to the cops. He felt an oppressive weight begin to force itself on him, threatening to overwhelm him.
When they reached the store, they waited outside until they saw that the Arab had no more customers. Billy went in first. He went to the back of the store near the coolers where the beer and wine was stored. After waiting a few minutes, Johnny followed him inside and began looking on the shelves at the front of the store where the breads and dry foodstuffs were kept. The Arab was sitting on a stool behind the counter, reading a newspaper while he kept an eye on Billy through the large mirror that hung at the rear corner of the store. It looked as if he was totally ignoring Johnny. Suddenly, Billy turned his back to the mirror and opened his coat wide. The Arab jumped up and hurried toward the back. Johnny used the opportunity to shove a loaf of bread and a bag of beans under his jacket. He then went to the cold case by the front door and took a package of lunch meat and put it in his jacket pocket. At that moment, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He froze.
“Stop!” the Arab shouted.
As Johnny turned he saw Billy come up behind the Arab and hit him with a bottle. It wasn’t like in the movies. The Arab didn’t fall, unconscious. He just wheeled around and threw a punch at Billy. Johnny made a grab for the Arab but missed. The Arab ran to the counter, pushed a button beside the register and picked up a sawed off pool cue. The Arab turned and swung the cue at Billy. Billy ducked out of the way and hit him with the bottle again. This time the Arab did go down. He fell on his back. Johnny jumped on the Arab, straddled him and began hitting him with his fists. It was ‘Nam all over again. This wasn’t some store clerk, this was Charlie. And it was kill or be killed. He took the K-bar from the scabbard in his boot and stabbed the Arab just as he had learned in the Army. Under the sternum and up into his heart. The Arab made a guttural sound and went limp as the last breath left his body.
Suddenly, he was aware of Billy shaking him and the Arab lying there, lifeless eyes fixed on nothing. “Johnny, what did you do?” Billy’s face was contorted with shock and fear. “Let’s get out of here,” he said in a loud whisper.
The feeling of crushing defeat hit Johnny, taking him to the point of tears. How could this have happened? How could he live with himself after this? What would happen to him? What would happen to Billy? What would become of the Preacher? The old man wouldn’t survive if they didn’t get back to help him. It was his fault for not keeping the monster at bay. For letting it get the best of him. Then he remembered, the Arab had hit the alarm button. The police would be here soon.
Johnny stood and ran from the store with Billy at his heels. As the two frightened men went around the corner to Washington Street, he heard sirens begin to wail in the distance. They began making their way to the park entrance about a half mile away. Everything became a kaleidoscope of blurred color and sound. Johnny and Billy arrived at the park entrance and entered running as fast as they could toward the camp. As they turned the final bend in the trail, they saw a police car parked on the trail above the camp and a policeman standing at the open driver’s door. The officer must have guessed where they would come, and he was waiting. Waiting to arrest them. Waiting to keep them from helping the Preacher.
When the officer saw them, he yelled something as he pulled his pistol from the holster. The first bullet hit Johnny in the left side of his abdomen just below the ribs. The second hit him in the throat and continued until it hit the cervical column and he fell to the trail. Billy was screaming as he ran. Not words, just a primal scream. The policeman fired at Billy. The bullet passed through his right eye and killed him instantly.
Johnny lay on the ground, eyes open, staring at the sky. He heard a gurgling sound coming from somewhere. It took a moment to realize that it came from him. The edges of his vision darkened and he realized that he was dying. Instead of fear, the knowledge set him free. Free from all those demons that had plagued him these last ten years. He welcomed death. His last thought was “Gracias, Dios, peace at last.”
* * *
The young officer leaned against the fender of his radio car. He was puffing a cigarette with trembling fingers as he tried to explain the circumstances of the shooting to his sergeant. “I don’t know how the hell it happened, Sarge,” he said as he took a drag, “I just saw these two guys running at me from over there.” He pointed at the bend in the trail, “the shorter one had a big knife in his right hand. There was blood all over his hands and shirt front. At first, I thought that he had cut himself. I ordered them to freeze but they just kept coming, so I fired. I hit the guy with the knife twice and he went down. The bigger one was screaming. Not words, just screaming like some wild animal and he kept running at me. I had no doubt that he was coming to hurt me, so I fired and he went down.” He looked down at the ground as he shook his head, tears welling in his eyes.
The sergeant put his hand on the officers shoulder, “Look, Travis, everything is going to be okay. It’s normal to be shaken, for Christ sake, you just shot someone. If you didn’t have some reservations, if you weren’t concerned, I would be worried about you. Try to remember that if you hadn’t reacted, it would be you lying there. These are the guys that killed Ali, the clerk at the convenience store on Jefferson and Washington. They would have killed you, too.”
He paused then added, “by the way, how did you end up here? How did you know? There wasn’t time for a broadcast about the robbery.”
The officer just shook his head as he looked at his feet, “one of the doctors from Memorial Hospital was jogging the river trail and saw someone lying under a lean-to. He was pissed about all the homeless in the park. He ran up to the entrance just as I was passing and flagged me down. He came along to show me where the guy was. When we got here and checked it out, we found that he was dead. The doctor said it was natural causes and stayed with him while I came here to call for the coroner on the radio. I had just opened the door when these guys showed up and everything happened.”
The sergeant looked around, “three damn people, maybe a fourth, are dead for no good reason. What in the hell caused all of this?”