I remember the sweep of the KC lights — through the yard, piercing the shrubs and casting the shadow of opaque bones against the white wall of the house, all the flaws in our drubbed siding suddenly called to account; how the beams zeroed in on my bedroom window, brighter and brighter, as they sought the guilty party.
The longer their spotlight scanned the neighborhood, the more I wanted to surrender. Walk out the front door in my stained skivvies, atop wobbly knees and a heaving heart, with hands raised to the sky. Just be done with it.
It was a bad start to my 11th year.
The lights were the crowning adornment on a jacked Toyota 4X4, one painted primer black and brandishing a white hood like a black eye. The cab was full, four skinny white faces long with scruff and bearing barely a full set of fangs between them.
To fill out their posse, another caucasian clutch rode in the back, eight or ten souls who sprang up from wherever these so-called crackers bred cousins. Arms folded, eyes bleak with squint, they all stared hard at the houses huddled around the foot of Kenneth Street, the last block before the dreadful road ended in trash and homeless camps between it and the toxic Tuolumne — once a river, now a shit-chute where Modesto dropped its offal.
These were McKenzies. Three blocks up on the right side, behind an eight-foot (I’m guessing) chain link fence and two slavering, psychotic Doberman Pinschers, they made their greasy home.
Darin McKenzie was our age, as far as we could tell. He was two grades behind, skinnier than a stop sign sideways, and was endlessly tugging the rat’s tail that sprang out the back of his head. My mom said it was a nervous tick. I didn’t understand what fleas had to do with it.
He was also mean. Dumb, and mean. He’d try to poke fun, and when the wordplay backfired — as it always would — fists would fly. I took my share of his punches that school year, and remember calmly observing — detached like an anthropologist considering the nature of Australopithecines — his knuckles were mostly lost in a nest of warts, their rugose canyons black with grime. I wondered if this was a scar from nervous tick bites.
We feared him. We hated him. We avoided him. And since he was seldom in class, or anywhere else outside the prison walls surrounding his home, it was mostly a simple task. Occasionally he’d ride his bicycle — as tricked out for a kid as his uncle’s Harley was for a grown man — up to the Stop and Shop, a liquor store that occupied a busy corner of Crow’s Landing and Robinson roads. He’d buy candy and sodas, much like us normal human beings, then pedal crookedly back to his house, laden with sugar and the massive chip on both his shoulders.
During these ventures, we were on high alert. Gamaliel, myself, Juan, Dumb Juan, and Gama’s little sister, Sandra. We’d stay in their yard for the duration, slinging tennis balls against the house and working the rebound. When Little Satan was contained within the walls of Hell, we’d once again take to the street outside our houses for our usual shenanigans.
Darin, we’d discovered, was a fledgling racist, a small mind steeped in a melange of smaller minds where the habits of hatred are happily passed on. He spat all the usual ethnic jibes at my friends as he pummeled them.
Believe it or not, even his dogs were trained to hate. We’d walk home from school down Kenneth Street, hugging the road side and stirring up small storms of dust over the unpaved sidewalks.
I’d pass the McKenzie’s house, laughing and oblivious, and the dogs might blink and yawn, barely registering my existence. As soon as Sandra or Gama appeared, however, the dogs would surge forth, their paws ripping up grass as they sprinted in as if for a kill. At the last minute, they’d bounce hard off the fence to leap and howl, twist and slobber in a great, carnivorous fit of aggression.
The McKenzies actually flew the stars and bars through the bay window of their beaten-down hovel, so that it hung over their shoulders like a television graphic while they swilled drivel and beer and sweated through their dirty clothes.
After such a display from the dogs, the older McKenzies would laugh. High, hard laughter that could cut you. And again, they’d squint as if hoping the chomping jaws would remind us of our place in their backwards universe.
One afternoon, things went from bad to worse.
On the first day of 6th Grade, our friend Omar came to school dressed to kill. Through a county program for the poor, he was able to go clothes shopping and had purchased a wardrobe of white golf shirts and jeans, a day-glo jacket and a pair of decent sneakers that shined brighter than the valley sun.
Having been one of the poor kids for most of his life, it was a bit of a shock to see Omar arrive in such splendor. And he took a fair ration of shit from his friends and fellow students, most of it good-natured. For once he enjoyed the novelty of looking too good to suit his prickly peers.
Something in the bright white of Omar’s shirts, however, caused an electrical storm in Darin’s brain. After school, as Omar detached from our group to make his way home a block over, Darin stepped out of the bushes and clobbered Omar upside and down. After blackening our friend’s eyes and chipping his bottom teeth, Darin took the large loaf of dogshit he’d apparently stowed nearby and painted the front and back of Omar’s shirt with it.
“Wear that to school tomorrow, or this happens again,” Darin growled as he trudged away, his bow-legged gait still eerily reminiscent of primitive man.
We knew nothing of this, of course, until later. Nor did we know that our intrepid friend Omar had then followed Darin home and watched his nemesis slip into his yard, where he frolicked drunkenly with his hellhounds for half an hour before stumbling inside.
Omar also happily noticed that Darin had left his tricked-out bike outside the family fence, intending to make a later trek to Stop and Shop.
Omar, grinning wide enough to show off his uneven, blood-stained teeth, then crept out of some bushes of his own and onto Darin’s 20-inch hot rod. Moments later, when Darin emerged from the house with a hunk of white bread wrapped around a brick of government cheese and Miracle Whip, all that remained of his trophy bike was a dusty whiff in the stink that enveloped their house.
Soon, answering the call, we were gathered under the expansive walnut tree that dominated much of the James Marshall School playground. We were speechless, horrified and ecstatic all at the same time, when Omar — shirtless now with the white golf-shirt shoved in his back pocket like a mechanic’s rag — unveiled his spoils.
I’d like to say there was a long dialogue on principle, and discussion on how we should collectively move ahead. There was none.
Juan, being the eldest, expertly wielded the half-inch ratchet and screwdriver as we dismantled Darin’s Mongoose in less than 15 minutes and parted out the goodies to everyone in our group.
I got a new set of brakes, and a righteous pair of handgrips. Though these niceties didn’t go far in rejuvenating the Frankenstein rig I pedaled around, I felt like a king for precisely four hours. Then, trouble started.
The flag that had always helped block the light of civilization from scalding the McKenzie living room was hauled out and hung from a flagpole that someone had duct-taped to the side of their Toyota truck. One brother manned the loudspeaker from the back, his leg perched arrogantly on the wheel well as his chariot made the rounds and he made threats.
I don’t remember what he said, but it probably went something like this: “You stole from my kin! You can’t handle the truth! Hasta la Vista, Baby! I’ll Be Back, so you better Get to the Chopper or you’ll have to Say Hello to My Little Friend!”
It was scary, it was racist, and it was awesome to behold — all at the same time as if mixed together as a suicide in a Big Gulp cup. The family that had so terrified us for years was having a fit, and we caused their discomfort.
On the other hand, the family that had so terrified us for years was having a fit, and we caused their discomfort.
For three days, members of their tribe would troll up and down Kenneth Street checking bikes, peering into people’s yards, lurking about malevolently and trying to scare some information out of the kids they encountered.
No one said a word. Roughly 12 people ended up with a piece of Darin’s bike, and no one ever paid the piper. We were brave as a group, but I at least nearly shat my bed each night as the bushwacker brigade paraded their ignorant pride up and down our neighborhood streets.
A year later, or so, Darin was expelled for punching a yard monitor, and by that time the world had moved on enough that we were already mostly out of his reach.
Gama’s mom was no fool, however. Guadalupe Padilla was short, and strong on faith. Though she worked long hours at night and slept much of the day, she was determined to improve the lives of her kids in the scant time she did have. She was loving but firm, patient but always correcting their course and demanding their best work.
The Saturday following our windfall, we were sidled up to the bar in their kitchen and eating, laughing and slurping down whatever we could scrounge up and keep down, when Guadalupe said her piece.
“You kids are lucky, you know,” she said. “You have families that teach you how to be, how to treat other people. You moan about it now, but it’s a lucky thing.
“Other kids around here, kids who may have a couple nice things but not much else, they don’t have that. They are going to step out into the world and get beat down because no one close to them knows or cares enough to teach them things,” she said. “Bad people aren’t born, you know? They’re made.”
I’d like to say that her speech, obvious in its intention, was enough to cause us recalcitrant kids to strip the stolen parts off our bikes and reassemble them for Darin. That it made us return the thing, whole and none the worse for wear, as a gesture of forgiveness.
That would be bullshit.
We were angry, we had exacted some small amount of revenge, and it was exhilarating. After she finished we listened for any hint of recrimination, any demand that we make our nemesis whole again. Hearing none, we went happily about our way.
It wasn’t that we didn’t care, or that Guadalupe’s truth was somehow lost on us. More, it was that in the face of something as vast and unsettling as someone’s else’s unreasoning hatred, it was comforting for once for my friends – and even I – to strike back at the beast and have it smart, if just for a second, like a bitch.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.