That afternoon as Tina and I walked out of the main building at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, I pushed the door opened and felt it smack into somebody.
"Hey why don't you watch where the fuck you're going?" a deep voice threatened. It was Monstra, terror of my school.
Monstra was from El Hoyo, one of the cruelest varrios around. You'd think that since her running partner, Cancer, had been expelled from school, Monstra would have mellowed out some, but instead she got meaner. Tina and I looked at her, speechless, stunned by our bad luck.
"Hey I didn't see you," I finally said as a small crowd, smelling blood, gathered around us.
"Yeah, well you oughta be more careful." Monstra stuck her pimpled face out, looking us both over. She was a big girl, heavily tattooed, with jagged teeth and bad breath. She was dumb and mean, a bad combination.
We were scared but trying our best not to show it.
"Pinche Pata," Tina said in an angry voice, "you should watch where you're going! I'm always telling you to be more careful."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," I answered.
Monstra looked a little confused. Tina shook her head and said, "I'm always telling her!" Looking back at me, Tina said, "C'mon, we gotta get going."
Tina and I walked away, holding our breath, trying to hold our heads high.
"Damn, Pata," Tina gasped when we were on the street. "That is one mean-ass ruca. Remember the time she broke a bottle over Fuzzy's head?"
"I sure do, but remember the time Loca Bea kicked her ass?"
"Ey that reminds me," Tina said, "did you hear about Loca Bea?"
Loca Bea was the mera chingona in our school and beyond. She was admired and respected, whereas Monstra was only feared.
"Hear what?" I yelled over the sound of low-riders gunning their Chevys up and down the street.
Tina looked excited. "She got out of juvie yesterday."
Loca Bea had been locked up the last few months for stabbing a lifeguard at Belvedere Plunge.
"You know," Tina added, raising her voice over the roar and yell of students, "that puto had it coming."
She was right. Everybody knew that lifeguard was a mañaco, always checking out the girls in a leering way. One day he made the mistake of grabbing Loca Bea and the next thing he knew he was being rushed to the hospital, blood pouring out of his shorts.
I wanted to be as respectable as Loca Bea and I knew Tina wished the same thing. Everybody knew it was me and Tina who stole the cow eyes from the science class storeroom and threw them around the cafeteria, but it was different with Loca Bea. People knew she was a cyclona and left her alone.
"You know," Tina interrupted my thoughts, "Loca Bea was always a loca but I don't think she was as crazy as she is now."
"Yeah," I agreed, "ever since those rucas from Marianna jumped her, she goes even mas loca."
A year earlier, Loca Bea had been badly beaten, her head repeatedly slammed against the sidewalk. She had been caught on the wrong side of Belvedere Park, deep in enemy territory.
Tina laughed, "Man those girls sure were sorry when she got them back."
Loca Bea had beaten each of the girls who had jumped her. She had broken a jaw or two and gouged out chunks of facial flesh. One girl was left with a crescent of purple teeth marks across her nose. Loca Bea was the perfect type of person to be close to, especially at a rowdy-ass school like mine where having a friend like her could mean the difference between life and Monstra.
Nearing my car Tina said, "I'm going to meet Rudy when he gets out of detention."
I smiled, "Sounds like love."
Tina blushed, "Don't be stupid, I'll see you tomorrow."
"Awright," I answered, watching her disappear into the cement colored building where detention was held.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Wanda come loping towards me.
"Oh shit," I thought.
"Hey!" she screeched. Wanda would have been weird even if she hadn't of been the only white girl at school. She was so different from what we thought of as white; there was no kind of privilege about her. She was tall but always hunched in a Quasimodo kind of way. Her eyes were a watery light blue almost colorless. Her skin was bad and she had yellow buckteeth. She couldn't dress worth a damn either always in plaids, stripes and dirty shit-kicker tennies.
Rough hands cut through the air as she waved at me. "Weren't you on the girl's baseball team?"
"No, I was on the boy's team."
Wanda threw her head back and laughed, not realizing I was mocking her. "That's funny! I saw you play against Lincoln and you were great!"
I wondered if she had seen me get tossed off the team, accused of putting a bag of dog shit under the girls' vice principal's seat, but I decided against mentioning it.
"So where you going?" Wanda asked.
"School's over, you know. I'm going home."
I pulled out the keys to my old, battered Corvair that everyone made fun of just because it was old and battered.
"Wow!" Wanda said, "Is this your car? It's great!"
I looked hard at her but I could tell she was being sincere.
Almost smiling, I answered, "Yeah, it's mine."
"I wish I had a car like this. Can I have a ride? Huh, please?"
"Aw, I gotta go home."
"Well that's all right," she said, "just take me with you and I'll walk back."
Wanda could see by the look on my face that that wasn't going to happen. "Well how about around the block then, huh, please?"
Shuffling her big feet, she looked so pitiful she reminded me of Tobacco Road, a puppy I once had that died of distemper. I opened the passenger door then stepped back as hot air and stale cigarette smoke whooshed out.
Wanda hopped in and ran her hand over the torn aqua dashboard as if she was caressing silk. "Man you're lucky! I wish I had a car like this."
I looked around to make sure no one who mattered saw Wanda get in my car. I was grateful the car started easily.
Wanda rolled down her window and stuck her head out, doggy style.
"Don't do that," I ordered.
Wanda jerked back in. "I'm sorry, did I make you mad? I just love the wind on my face is all."
"It's ok, you didn't make me mad."
Wanda looked so relieved I felt bad.
Wanda smiled, "My grandma always said she'd get me a car. She was the nicest person I ever knew."
"Yeah. She's dead."
After a minute, I said, "Look, why don't I give you a ride home."
Wanda looked excited but then unsure. "Well, I'm kinda out of the way."
"Where do you live?"
"I'm on Fetterly, just on the other side of Whittier."
"Aw that's not so far, I'll take you."
Wanda didn't laugh when my car sputtered and shimmied.
I parked the car where Wanda pointed, and realized we were in front of the Tic Toc Trailer Park. Status-wise it was probably the worst place you could live. It was crowded with rusting hulks of small mobile homes sitting on blocks, pieces of rubber hanging off the ones with rims. The kids at school called anyone who lived there a Toc'er and would call out "Tic Toc, Tic Toc."
Wanda sat with her head down, waiting.
"I'll see you around," I said.
Wanda's head snapped up and she flashed me a huge smile. "Gee thanks! I had so much fun! I'm glad we're friends!"
Before I could say anything, Wanda jumped out of the car and disappeared through a flimsy looking narrow door into one of the smaller, meaner looking trailers. It was green and cream colored with slat windows, some broken, all dirty.
On the seat next to me was Wanda's clutch. It was a grimy pink plastic with green vinyl stitching around the edges. A decal of the Long Beach Pike was half rubbed off. Turning off my car, I picked it up and walked towards the trailer I had seen her go into.
A woman's voice rang out. "Clean the dishes, you idiot."
Wanda answered, "But Ma, I just got home."
I heard the sound of a slap followed by sobbing. Turning around, I took the purse back with me and tossed it on the front seat and drove off.
Since Tina lived next door she would come over in the morning. On this day, knocking on the door, she yelled, "C'mon, Pata, let's go, we're going to be late for first period."
As I opened the door, Tina looked me over, one hand on her hip. "You could brush your hair, you know."
"Yeah, yeah," I answered, running my hands over my long black wavy hair.
Tina shook her head at me sadly, her hoop earrings swinging back and forth.
As we got into my car Tina spotted Wanda's wallet on the torn vinyl seat. Her eyes got big and she said, "Who the hell does that belong to? I know it ain't yours."
"Yeah, well maybe it is," I teased, grinding the car's gear into first.
Tina snorted, "Yeah right. And you've got a closet full of dresses."
"It belongs to Wanda."
"You mean that weird white chick at school?" Tina took her pack of cigarettes from her purse and tapped it against the dashboard.
"Yeah," the car coughed and lurched forward.
"What the hell was she doing in your car?"
"I gave her a ride home," I answered.
Tina did a double take. "Why the hell'd you do that for?"
"Ay Tina, I just gave her a ride home."
"Ay Tina..." she mocked, "what if someone like Loca Bea saw you riding with Wanda?"
"So what if she had?"
"Don't play pendeja with me," Tina argued. "You look weak hanging around someone like her. Remember what happened to Robert?"
I did. Robert had been nice to Juan the Queer and since then everybody had hassled him and given him the same kind of grief that they gave Juan the Queer. Monstra had poured rubber cement on his hair.
As I drove, Tina picked up the clutch and weighed it in her hand. "I wonder what's in here," she said.
"Leave it alone," I started but was too late. Tina unzipped it and pulled out the clutch's contents.
"Ay look at this!" Tina yelped, "She's got a David Cassidy fan club card!"
"No fucking way!" I said.
"Yeah she does!" She waved the card at me, showing David's face inside a daisy set against the Partridge Family bus.
"Man this is one weird chick!" Tina said, "Where's she live anyway?"
I hesitated, "She's on Fetterly."
"How come I've never seen her around?"
"She's south of Whittier."
"You mean in the trailer park?"
Before I could answer, Tina said, "Ooh," pulling out a dented tube of pink metal-flake lipstick. "Man this is nasty." Tina read the label, "Ay! It's called Hot Cha-Cha-Cha!" Tina poked at my mouth with the tube.
"Stop it, mensa. Put that shit back into her purse."
"Aw don't be so uptight, Pata. It's not like she's your friend or anything."
Steering the car to the curb I answered, "I didn't say she was."
During my last class of the day, as I was slumped in my seat, spitting sunflower seeds around, Tina poked her head in the back door and waved at me to come out. Like any of my teachers, Mr. Donato was always happy to see me go.
"Que pasa?" I asked Tina in the hall.
"Loca Bea's here!"
"Oh wow, where?"
"She's in the 200 building head. Let's go."
We walked towards the restroom together, keeping an eye out for stray teachers who might question us.
Loca Bea was leaning against the graffiti splashed back wall under a thick haze of smoke. She had black hair teased into a tall beehive, pale skin and emerald eyes. She was taller than she was short with thick-looking arms, her hands heavily veined.
"Ey," I said, lifting my chin.
Loca Bea nodded slightly.
Whipping out my pack of cigarettes I offered her one, "Want a frajo, esa?"
Loca Bea coolly blew out a stream of smoke, "I already have one."
Tina rolled her eyes at me in a way that clearly said, "Lighten up, esa!"
Stumbling I said, "When I lived in Chihuahua I always had my next frajo ready."
Loca Bea perked up, "You lived in Chihuahua?"
"Yeah, my mom shipped my ass down there for six months."
"Man," Loca Bea smiled, "my jefita's from Chihuahua."
We rattled on, excited to find this city in Mexico common to us.
Tina looked happy and said to Loca Bea, "Why don't you ride home with us?"
Loca Bea smiled at me, "Yeah, all right."
As the three of us walked together, I enjoyed the new way people were looking at me and Tina. It was a cautious, respectful look and people moved out of our way.
Still in the school hall, Loca Bea lit a cigarette, dragging on it deeply.
A teacher came out of a classroom and looked at Loca Bea like she was crazy. "Hey, put that cigarette out."
Loca Bea looked at the teacher like she was crazy. "Hey, shut the fuck up and get out of my way."
The teacher went back into her room. Our admiration for Loca Bea was growing by leaps and bounds.
Turning the corner, Monstra headed in our direction.
"Oh shit," I said under my breath.
Monstra had her eyes locked on me, a hungry look on her face. She walked directly in my path, a mean sounding laugh rumbling out.
Taking a deep swallow, I looked at Tina.
"Pata's car is right outside, Loca Bea." Tina said loudly.
Seeming to come out of a trance, Monstra looked up and noticed Loca Bea. Staring straight ahead, Monstra walked by us without a word.
Tina and I glanced at each other, relieved.
As we exited the building and walked towards my car I heard Wanda. "Hey, hi!"
I kept my back to her as I unlocked the car door, hoping Loca Bea hadn't noticed.
"Hey!" Wanda insisted, "Can I go riding with you again?"
Loca Bea raised an eyebrow. "You go cruising with this ruca?"
"Naw!" I answered quickly, "I don't do anything with this girl."
Wanda looked confused. "But we're gonna be friends, remember?"
Tina sneered, "Tic Toc, Tic Toc."
Wanda's eyes got watery and I regretted telling Tina where she lived.
Wanda looked at me. Feeling my face get hot, I put my head down, not able to look her in the eye.
Peering into my car, Wanda said, "There's my purse. Can I at least have it...please?"
Tina grabbed the clutch and tossed it at Wanda, laughing as it fell on the sidewalk, spilling its contents. Wanda got down on her hands and knees to pick everything up.
"Don't forget your David Cassidy card," Tina smirked.
Tears ran down Wanda's face and she was taking deep raspy breaths.
I stood there trapped, not knowing what to do.
"C'mon Loca Bea," Tina said, holding the car door open, "You ride shotgun, esa."
Loca Bea looked at the two of us, disgust all over her face. "Man, that was a chicken shit thing to do. You rucas ain't got no class."
Loca Bea knelt down and helped Wanda pick up her things.
Standing back up, Loca Bea said, "My brother lives at the Tic Toc Trailer Park. I ain't riding with either of you."
Loca Bea flicked her cigarette into my car and walked away with Wanda.
Before we could say anything we heard the door from the building behind us slam. Turning we saw Monstra walking our way, a weird smile on her face.