“My friends and I,” my cousin corrected his daughter.
She stared at us with the blank look of a teenager being corrected for something deemed insignificant. Behind her, the Pacific Ocean could be seen through plate glass windows that covered the wall of the restaurant we sat in at the end of Huntington Beach pier. As we ate breakfast, fishermen baited and cast their lines over the railing in hopes of a morning catch.
“What does it matter?” she asked no one in particular, so I answered.
“It matters because people judge you by how you look, how you act, and what comes out of your mouth.”
“They do? Are their judgments right?” she asked me.
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no. When they’re right it can avoid pain and heartache. But when they’re wrong it can allow fear and ignorance to close their mind to meeting new people.”
“That’s horrible,” Cecilia gasped.
“But it happens,” I said. “I’ve judged people and been wrong. One time I was very wrong.”
“When?” she asked.
“He was an ex-convict,” I replied. “A man who had been sent to prison at a young age as a drug addict and thief. I judged him before he even spoke, assuming I knew the person he was. I was wrong.”
“What happened?” she asked.
“Do you really want to know?” I questioned her question.
Cecilia nodded, showing more excitement than she had in days.
“Well,” I said, “it started with a motorcycle trip to Mexico.”
We were heading south through the mountains of southern California. The road wound through pockets of cool air and green trees even though it was summer and no rain had touched the ground in months. We were well above sea level, but our elevation was not apparent until the edge of the mountains. There, relativity struck when the road rapidly descended into the valley below through miles of switchbacks decorated on the uphill edge with piles of rock talus accumulated by decades of tiny avalanches. In the distance was The Salton Sea, a massive body of undrinkable saline water surrounded by scraggly plants that lived by greedily hording every bit of moisture. The horizon was dominated by the unforgiving Imperial Desert Valley.
We made our way down the mountain, past the Salton, and though desert until we stopped one hundred yards shy of the Mexican border in the town of Calexico. Our line of motorcycles pulled into the gravel parking lot of a Pizza Hut. It was an odd place for the restaurant and the company’s bright sign stood proudly over the dilapidated building brutalized by years of sun and heat. Two payphones, disappearing relics of days past, were bolted to the wall by the entrance.
I got off my bike and stood in a tiny patch of shade offered by a lone palm tree. As I watched folks tighten bolts and replenish oil, Grant Reynolds walked over and said, “My brother’s here. He’s gonna ride with us.”
“Same one you told me about?” I asked, continuing to watch people tinker.
Months earlier, Grant had told me about his younger brother Mark who for years had been hooked on heroin. The drug took its toll on him, and like countless others under the unforgiving burden of addiction drove him to resort to things that eventually landed him in prison.
“Yeah, same one.”
“How long has he been out?” I asked.
“Awhile. He’s still trying to get back into the swing of things.” Silence fell for a period, then Grant continued, “Come on, I want you to meet him.”
We made our way through the sea of bikes to the edge of the parking lot where a man stood leaning against a cinderblock wall alone and shirtless. His hands were behind his back and one foot was propped against the wall so his knee stuck out. He leaned forward and watched the people around him as if endlessly assessing his surroundings for danger. Tattoos covered his body, arms, and neck, including a Glock 9 millimeter pistol on the side of his head, which was revealed through his short hair. He wore baggy jeans that hung from his waist and low-top Adidas shoes that looked like the kind convicts wore in prison.
It was then, before a single word was spoken, that I judged him: thug.
Mark’s gaze fell on me as we neared him, casting with it a palpable weight. I used it to further convince myself that my assumptions of him were correct. But rather than revealing such thoughts, I defaulted to masking them with sophomoric humor. “You look just like your brother,” I said to Mark, “but without the pansy.”
“Very funny,” Grant said trying to smile.
“And true,” Mark added with a smirk as he shook my hand.
We went through the introductions until the motorcycle by him caught my attention and I asked, “Is that your bike?”
“Sure is.” It was a retired Harley-Davidson police bike from the late ‘80s. It looked exactly as it had during its years of service for the law, but lacking the lights and decals. The motorcycle was in fantastic condition except for a tiny tear in the middle of the seat from years of riding. “Pretty funny, huh?” Mark said with a smile. “A convict on a cop’s bike.”
I smiled and agreed. His self-deprecating humor had caught me off guard. It nucleated the first cracks – tiny, but measurable – in the preconceived notions I had formed just seconds earlier.
“You think that’s funny,” Grant chimed in. “Let me tell you about this bonehead when we were kids.” He began telling stories of hyjinx by the brother Reynolds, stopping periodically when Mark interrupted to interject what he remembered as the truth. It was a warm recount of mischievous brothers growing up together that continued until everyone began preparing to leave. Then Grant stopped a story in mid stride and said, “Time to go.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mark said, patting my shoulder before I could walk away.
The parking lot erupted with the sound of engines being brought to life and with everyone accounted for we crossed into the arid expanse of The Mexican Baja.
The following day we found ourselves in San Felipe, a tiny fishing village on The Sea of Cortés. We settled into a colorful motel made of adobe and tile, then headed towards the beach. Folks broke into groups, some going to shop, others to bars, and still others to see the blue-green water that held secrets like the Giant Humboldt Squid and Monster Oarfish. Mark, Riki, and I found a tiny cantina near the beach. The walls and floor had been painted in bright colors that were now faded and peeling in spots.
We sat down and a young woman came over to our table and asked, “¿Cervezas?”
“No. Coka-cola, por favor,” Mark said to her. Then to us, “What do you guys want? I don’t drink alcohol.”
“Neither do I,” Riki said. “Been sober for 23 years.”
Riki’s sobriety is one of the things I enjoy most about him. Growing up, my friendships were based on getting hammered on what ever substance was available. Life was about having fun with buddies and doing it while barely able to stand. But with age that changed and Riki became a friend without such baggage. My time spent with him was sober and I liked it that way.
“I’ll take a soda too,” I said.
“Tres cokas, por favor,” Mark said to the woman
“¿En una vaso o botella?”
“¿Son las botellas frías?”
“Tomaremos botellas,” Mark ended before she turned and walked to a dented industrial cooler.
“Your Spanish is good,” I said.
“I learned it in the yard. You gotta pick a side in prison and I fell in with the Latinos. Having grown up in San Diego I already knew some Spanish. But now I’m fluent,” he said with a pause for comic delivery, “in prison Spanish.”
After a pull of soda, I tentatively said to Mark, “I have a question about prison.”
“Shoot,” he replied.
“I’m not sure how to ask it.”
“Oh, no! Don’t you dare,” Riki erupted at me with wide eyes, then quickly turned to Mark waiting for an answer.
“Are you curious if someone got me in the rear?” Mark asked. “No.”
“I imagine you get that question a lot, but that wasn’t it. I’m curious how you felt being locked up. Being confined to a tiny space with no escape. To being subjected to people with a history of violence.”
“I got by. It actually wasn’t that bad. I kept my head down and did my time.”
“What was the scariest thing that happened to you?”
Without pause, Mark answered, “The obligatory first fight.” He used that word, “obligatory.” At first, such words from Mark caught me off guard because I assumed his vocabulary would be shallow. But they soon became expected. He revealed his time in prison was spent reading and spoke affectionately of authors like Albert Camus and Cormac McCarthy who left him with an impressive vocabulary and grasp of literature that enabled him to clearly convey his thoughts. Mark continued, “When you get to prison you have to fight. Or you’re labeled weak, which means every day is hell. My first days were no different. I had to fight. But it didn’t go down the way anyone expected.”
Mark had arrived in prison and was given the ultimatum: prove yourself or else. He had to fight one man, a person chosen by the other inmates. Mark had no say in the matter. And in what seemed a sick joke, they picked the biggest and meanest bastard in the wing. A massive silverback who ruled the block through aggression and intimidation. There was no way Mark could beat the man in a fight, but he had to try. Not trying would be even worse than loosing.
The day came for the confrontation and Mark found the man in his cell laying on the top bunk looking at a magazine. Mark gathered enough courage to enter the man’s cell, then announced, “Get down. We’re fighting!” The man calmly looked past his magazine and at seeing a boy said, “beat it before you get hurt,” then returned to perusing the magazine. Perplexed at the turn of events, Mark yelled, “Get down!” and pulled the giant man from the top bunk. Unsuspecting that a mere boy would lay a hand on him, he went from the bunk without resistance, dropping his magazine as he began falling towards the concrete floor. The man grew enraged and went for Mark’s neck as he descended.
Just then the universe decided to inject its own brand of irony.
Before he could reach Mark, the man’s head slammed into the cell’s stainless-steel toilet bowl, knocking him out before he landed motionless on the floor. Mark stood over the hulking body in disbelief. He had just done the impossible without throwing a single punch. Shock held Mark frozen until the sound of approaching footsteps shook him back to reality. He began yelling and acting like the fight was just ending as convicts from the rest of the wing arrived at the cell door. It worked. And by the end of the day Mark had convinced everyone that a boy had knocked out the prison’s toughest man.
“And then I got even luckier,” Mark said laughing, “when the guy was shipped to another part of the prison. I didn’t know it then, but the guards never let inmates who have fought stay in the same wing. They don’t want repeat fights. They also don’t want the loser to get picked on, so they move them to another wing for a new start. So for as long as I was there, I never saw the guy again.”
“Holy crap,” Riki said looking stunned. “You’re my hero.”
Mark drank his soda and watched the gently lapping surf. His story had proven what I had already begun to suspect: he was a good man that did stupid things and paid the price. He was thrown into prison with a bunch of seasoned criminals and left to defend himself. And neither his cloak of tattoos nor his defensive posture could now hide that.
That night we got on our bikes to set out for dinner as the sun neared the horizon. One wrong turn and we found ourselves on a broken down road that ended at an abandoned hotel surrounded by sand dunes. The vacant hotel was ten stories tall and looked like something from a demilitarized block of Russia, though decorated with palm trees.
As we pulled into the sand lot by the hotel to turn around, I gassed my bike in a fit of idiocy and spun the rear wheel. A long rooster tail of sand sprayed my friends behind me. The sand flew until the rear wheel hung in a deep hole and the belly of the bike sat on the sand.
With the bike immovable and no more sand to be thrown, I shut off the engine and stepped off to admire my work. Each person yelled a few carefully-chosen expletives at me before getting off their bike and proving their friendship by digging out my motorcycle. Caleb Owens, the one person of our motley group with true mechanical skills, rubbed his chin as he looked at the back of my bike.
“Your belt’s full of sand,” he said. “And it’s coming off.” He was right. As the wheel had spun, sand poured into the pulley and under the belt, causing it to ride onto the retainer ring. Amazingly, this had not broken the belt, but did put enough pressure on the pulley that when I later got home and took off the wheel the axle was bent five degrees from straight. Caleb tried pushing and kicking the belt back on with no luck, then said, “We gotta take off the wheel.”
With that, roadside engineering of the Mexican variety began and everyone started doing something. Grant found a large piece of driftwood, and after everyone lifted the bike from its sandy tomb, wedged it under the bike to get the rear wheel off the ground. Taime quietly watched as he smoked a cigarette. Riki took pictures and tweeted them. And Gilby bent over to help remove the wheel. In doing so, he exposed his butt crack like he always does when he bends over.
With everything under control, I walked to the edge of the dune to relive myself. As my stream fell, everything got quiet. Too quiet. I turned to see what was going on and had a brief moment to see the brothers Reynolds running full speed at me. It was enough time to see, but not enough time to react, and before I could move they tackled me down the steep edge of the dune. With my manhood still dangling from my fly, we tumbled down twenty feet of sand, rock, and brush until coming to rest at the bottom. They stood up and looked down at me as I tucked myself back in my jeans and spat sand from my teeth.
“That’s for making us dig out your bike!” Grant yelled, pointing at me with mock sternness. He turned and scurried up the hill, knocking loose small avalanches of sand with each step.
Mark stayed, and after his brother had crested the hill and vanished, he leaned close and said one thing to me before following his brother up the hill: “Welcome to the family.”
The next morning we woke early for the journey from San Felipe to Ensenada. Mark stood quietly packing his things into the saddlebag of his retired police cruiser until he found something of interest. Taking it out, he tucked the foreign object between his legs and pulled off his shirt. He turned away from me, bent forward, then pulled it over his head. He popped up and turned to me wearing a blue and white luchador’s mask that shimmered in the sun with metallic glitter. He laughed deeply then stuck out his arms and flexed his muscles with a theatrical grunt.
“How do I look, brother?” Mark bellowed.
I smiled and said nothing.
“Nothing!” Cecilia said grimacing from across the table now empty of breakfast. “How could you say nothing to him after all that?”
“Sometimes nothing needs to be said.”
“I don’t get guys,” she said with exasperation.
“But after Mark asked that question,” I continued, “a single word filled my thoughts.”
“What word?” she asked interested again.