Where Did I Go Wrong?
TO ERASE THE MEMORY of an embarrassing strikeout in a slow-pitch game, Mickey Cortez entered Lupe’s Super, Super Mercado and splurged on a soda and a bag of chili-flavored CornNuts. His baseball cap, which he customarily wore with the bill turned back, faced forward. He needed all the disguise he could find. His spirits had fallen to the level of his dragging shoelaces.
His mind played back the pain of his failure. He grimaced as he recalled hurling down his bat. Then he had irrationally blamed the swirl of dust that kicked up just as he swung through the third pitch and ended the game, 5–4.
"Stupid dust!" he had yelled. He scrubbed his eyes to make his point. But his teammates, who had been clinging hopefully to the chain-link fence, just groaned and began to gather their equipment.
Now, to make himself feel better, Mickey bought food and drink. The owner of the store was a friend of his father’s, so the boy was allowed to ignore the scrawled sign above the magazine rack that read: BUY THE MAGAZINE—DON’T JUST READ IT.
He was eyeballing the latest issue of Lowrider magazine when a man whispered, "Oye, kid, you need work?" Mickey jumped, startled not by the man breathing down on him—and the fact that he was tattooed to his throat—but by the word he despised most of all. Work. As in pick up a shovel? he thought. As in weed the flower bed? As in get an old towel from the garage and wash the car?
"What?" Mickey asked weakly. "Did you say . . . work?"
The man’s eyes were small in his large face, but that was the only thing small about him: He was barrel-chested, with muscle-packed shoulders and huge arms and legs. He stood just a few inches taller than Mickey, but much mightier.
"Yeah, kid, I’m looking for someone to help me move things. I’m paying good—thirty dollars—if you can spare a couple hours."
The man had to retrieve items from his grandfather’s house. Old Gramps, the man quipped, had eaten too much menudo in his time and had suffered a heart attack. He touched his heart, and then the gold dollar sign that dangled from a large gold chain around his neck.
Mickey, seeing that this hombre was connected to a larger economy than the two quarters in his own pocket, became interested. At home he slaved for nothing—or next to nothing, just a dollar or two. Now this man was offering Mickey thirty bucks.
"How long will it take?"
"Not long," the man answered. "You’re a strong-looking dude."
Mickey inflated his chest and held the air as long as he could before slowly releasing it. "Okay," he agreed.
He finished his soda and crushed the can in his fist, which made the man whistle and say, "You’re strong, I’m telling you." Mickey smiled proudly and again inflated his chest.
Soon Mickey was in an old squeaky truck moving down Fruit Street. He noticed the radio was gone. "Your truck get jacked?"
Mickey pointed at the cavern full of loose wires.
"Yeah," the man muttered, head shaking in disgust. "These be bad times. People just taking what they want." He scratched a tattoo that read born to lose on his bicep. "But you know what the worst theft is?"
Mickey shook his head.
"It’s when someone steals your soul."
Profound, Mickey thought. The dude sounds like my dad when he’s kicking it in his recliner and complaining about the government.
The man introduced himself as Raul.
"I got a friend at school named Raul," Mickey said. "Him and me want to start a rock group."
"Is that right?" Raul asked. "What instrument you play?"
"Nothing right now, but we’re going to learn."
"I’m sure you’re gonna make it. And if not in music, then in sports. Bet you play ball, huh?"
Mickey beamed. "Yeah, actually, I play slow-pitch." His recent outing, he figured, had been a fluke. The stupid dust messed him up—dust and everyone looking at him from the dugout.
Mickey spied a car approaching from the opposite direction. It was his father’s car. A zipper of fear ran up his back. What would his father think of his son in a truck driven by a total stranger? He was only thirteen. Or would his father be proud that he had found work?
"Is this place far?" Mickey felt nervous. "My mom likes me to be home by five." He caught sight of a tattoo in Lowrider script, carlos, on the guy’s wrist. Which is it? Mickey wondered. Raul or Carlos?
"Nah, it’s just right around here," Raul answered.
The truck turned a corner. They were in a nice part of their small city, with flowers standing up in well-fertilized soil and sharing their pretty faces with passersby. Automatic sprinklers were spinning out water on supergreen lawns.
"It’s one of these," Raul said. He peered out the windshield splotched with the horrible deaths of insects.
Mickey was certain his widowed aunt lived on this street. Her husband had died while ordering a hamburger. This was just about all he remembered about his uncle, a baker who went to bed before the good television programs started and got up while it was still night.
Raul searched for a house, braked, backed the truck up a few feet, and crept into the driveway, cutting the engine and letting the truck roll until it stopped. The house was near the corner, and its lawn sparkled from a recent soaking. A flag with smiling bunnies and turtles on it hung by the door.
"Your grandfather lives here?" To Mickey, the house didn’t seem very Mexican, and Raul, dark as a penny, was puro homie.
"That’s right. You wait here ’cause I got to go around the back and get the key." Raul jumped out of the truck and disappeared through a gate at the side of the house.
Mickey wrote his name on the dusty dashboard, then leaped from the truck. Before he slammed the door, he noticed six or seven cell phones under the passenger’s seat, maybe more. Was Raul a thief?
"Dang," he whispered. Was he, a tender seventh grader, being pulled into a crime that would send him to juvie until he was seventeen? By then, his voice would have deepened like a frog’s.
Mickey didn’t dwell on this question because Raul had appeared on the porch. "Come on, champ," he called with a wave. Somehow, Mickey couldn’t disappoint this guy—he was sort of cool with all his tattoos.
Once inside the house, he was greeted by cool air, a tidy living room, and bright artificial flowers in a vase. Raul closed the door behind them and pointed to a huge television. Mickey whistled. It could have been an altar in a church because a cross and a picture of Jesus sat on top.
"We’re going to move this?" Mickey sidled up to the television and perceived that it was taller than he.
"Yeah, that’s why I need you, champ." Mickey sensed Raul was trying to stroke him with a compliment. Still, he wasn’t about to confront him and ask, "Hey, dude, you a thief? How come you got a tattoo that says Carlos?"
It was just too late.
Raul unplugged the television, tossed the cross and pictur...