This piece appeared in The First Line in 2006. It was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
The day my brother, Andy, left us for college, he gave me a fishing pole, a battered paperback of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Playboys. “I don’t know what you’re going to do with this,” he laughed, swinging the skinny yellow pole like a baseball bat, “but I sure as hell don’t need it. You could take it by Royal Pawn, see if you get five bucks.”
Andy pointed the pole at the worn book. “Hang onto that in case you get Castorapple in fifth grade. Don’t make Mom buy it again. It’s about some talking animals—your kind of thing.”
Andy was nineteen and super tall. He could fly right up to a hoop. He was getting paid to go to school in Arizona. I was ten, the shortest kid in my class.
My brother hung a big duffle bag on his shoulder. He’d already taken his things out of our room and put them in a rented pick-up. “And don’t let Mom catch you with the chichi mags,” he said. “Don’t be stupid, man.”
The front door of our apartment closed behind him. I blubbered, couldn’t help it. I chased him out the door and down the hall.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said, kneeling down to my height. “You’re getting boogers in your mouth. Just chill out, don’t stress Mom, and when you get some free time, come visit me out there.” He kissed me on the forehead then disappeared through the metal door under the EXIT sign. I pressed my ear against the cool plane and listened to his feet thumping down the metal stairs.
It was July something, no school, ten million degrees in Koreatown. Mom wouldn’t be home from the hospital until 8:30. I squatted in my brotherless room and fanned the Playboys out like a deck of cards.
I opened to a lady in a Dodger’s hat holding a baseball bat between her chichis and biting the handle. On the next page, the same girl sat Indian-style on a pitchers’ mound. I got the scissors and glue out of the kitchen drawer and carefully cut her out of the picture. Then I chopped up some of her friends and glued them back together as mutants. They had boobs for heads and extra arms and legs.
The front door creaked. I jumped out of my skin.
“Papito, you here?” said Mom. “Guess what, the jefe’s wife had a baby girl today, so we got off early.” I tried to bulldoze everything into the closet. Mom planted her big white work shoes right in my path.
Her mouth came down close to my eyes and white ticked-off teeth flashed behind her lips. “Qué carajos estás haciendo?” she demanded. “Pornography in my house?” She smacked my head sideways. “Did your brother give you these?”
She made me carry the whole stack—plus the mutants—out of our apartment and down the stairs at the back of the building. “God is punishing me, I know it. I know I am not perfect, but I try to raise good boys.” Mom always went on like this, when we acted up.
A door banged above us. An old lady with a shower cap on her head leaned over the rail. “Shhhhh!” she said. “You disturb whole building!”
“See this cochino?” yelled Mom. “Ten years-old, he wants to be a pervert!”
The old lady shook her head. “Throw him in garbage,” she said. “Maybe teach lesson.” She went back inside.
Twenty million hours later, we reached a red door at the bottom. Mom poked my back with her fingernail. I held the magazines between my arms and chin and turned the handle. Heat blasted into the stairwell.
We stepped into the passage separating our building from the next one over. Here was the big green dumpster, so I knew my window was right above our heads, three floors up. All my magazines went into the trash.
I got grounded. No TV, no Need 4 Speed 2, nada. I had to stay in my room for days. Mom worked, like always, so she called the babysitter over to keep me locked up. Rosalba was our downstairs neighbor. All she ever did was blab on her cell. I could hear her through my bedroom door.
I lied on my belly and flipped through the book Andy left me. It was marked-up with scribbled notes. He had underlined some weird words: scrabbled, cellarage, loosestrife, cressandwiches, dabchicks, weir. Mole. Mom had moles on her face. But they didn’t talk. This one talked.
I opened the door partway and stuck my head into the living room. “Ssss,” I said. “Ssss, Rosalba.”
“What’s up? I’m on the phone.” She pulled her cell away from her ear, looking annoyed.
“What’s a mole?”
“It’s like a pimple, but different. If you pop it, you could get cancer.” She cackled and said into the phone “Bitch, yes you can…Says Mrs. Kao, that’s who.”
“What’s cellarage?” I said.
Rosalba lifted her painted-on eyebrows. “You’re not even supposed to be out here. You need to use the bathroom or something?”
“Back in jail.”
I locked myself inside. There was nothing to do, so I read through the part where Mole discovered the River and met Water Rat and Toad and Otter. He acted a fool and fell in, so Water Rat had to save his ass. I read until the sweat on my neck felt like slobber.
I opened the window and sounds from Wilshire sloshed into the room. Tires screeched, somewhere out of sight. A car door slammed.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” someone yelled.
“Kiss my ass!”
“Yeah screw you!”
A chopper passed overhead. Neighbors argued in a language I didn’t know. I leaned out into the passage. I could see sunlight flash like a death ray off the cars passing by.
The next-door building was taller than ours. I didn’t know anybody who lived there. I turned over and rested the back of my head on the windowsill. The crystal blue sky ran like a river above the buildings. Pigeons knocked heads to look at me from the rooftops. One jumped up and flapped down to the dumpster for a trash snack.
I grabbed the fishing pole. The line was way too short. I cut it and tied the hook to a super long piece of kite string I’d found at school, threading it through the loop at the tip of the pole. I kept the other end in my hand, so I could feed the line out or pull it in.
I let the line out the window, all the way down to the dumpster. I waved the pole slowly, until the hook snagged.
I reeled in a take-out box dripping white sauce and had to throw it back. Next try, I got a balled-up diaper. I jerked the pole up and down until it fell off.
Wilshire was quiet, so I knew it was the madrugada—the only time when no one yelled or honked. No noise but the 101 shushing in the distance. The smell of Mom’s café heating on the stove tickled my nose. I slipped out of my room to see if she’d let me have a sip, even though I was in trouble.
She sat at the table. She looked tired, but calm. She smiled when she saw me. She poured a few drops of café into a tiny blue cup.
“More, more,” I said.
“You should be asleep.” Mom stirred sugar in with a tiny spoon. The first sip always made me shiver. After that, it was sweet and smooth. I drank slowly to make it last.
“Why can’t we go fishing ever?” I said, getting to the point. I had been dreaming about it.
Mom wrinkled her nose. “Fishing?”
“At the river.”
“You want to go to the Los Angeles River? No fish there.” She laughed like it was the funniest thing she’d heard all day. “Baby, that water runs black.”
“We never even went,” I said.
Mom relaxed into a smile. I climbed into her lap and she rested her chin on my head, the way we used to sit back when she was fat and squishy and I was small enough to hide there.
“I wish could take you to my river,” she said, meaning the one where she grew up, in Cuba. “During the summer, it always jumped its borders and flooded parts of town, killing chickens and dogs—or maybe a little boy if he was a travieso like you. Sometimes the foam traveled as far as Cinco Pesos. And on the banks was a forest of mango trees and vines that looked like snakes, snakes that looked like vines. You always had to watch where you stepped.”
“Why can’t we go?”
“We can’t go back,” she said, “You know that already.” Mom left Bahía Honda on a boat before Andy was born—way, way before I was born. She only talked about it late at night, while I was between dreams. It was my real place, even if I hadn’t been there yet.
Mom’s body tensed. “Ya. Get back to bed. And don’t think this means you can come out tomorrow, Señor. I’m still mad at you.”
I couldn’t relax in bed. My sheet felt scratchy like a wool blanket. I got onto my knees at the window and positioned my pole for fishing.
The fat moon hung right above the gap, like it was strung-up between the buildings. Flashlight bright, it shone into the fishing hole. Something glittered down there, like an eye. Like an eye belonging to a cat or a rat or a fox. I wanted it, whatever it was.
I swung the line past my prey then dragged the hook along the ground. The sparkle didn’t budge. After a few tries, I managed to hook and reel it in carefully. It twinkled all the way up to my window. I’d caught a shiny silver watch. It even ticked.
Day two in jail. Just throw-backs, so far. I sat on the windowsill, one foot on the carpet in my room and the other one bumping against the concrete outside. A half-eaten Chicken MacNugget swung at the end of my line.
“Here fishy-fishy.” Four pigeons were tracking the nugget. They lingered around the dumpster, pecking at the ground, trying to act casual. “Y’all don’t fool me,” I told them. “You want this.”
A pigeon flapped and dove from the top of the dumpster. He knocked most of the nugget onto the ground. Two birds ran for it and crashed into each other.
There was barely anything left on the hook. I started reeling it up. Suddenly, a fat grey bird swooped from the roof and snaked the chicken, hook and all. He carried it up past my room. I thought that if I held on, he would take me up there too. I swung both legs out of the window to make lift-off easier. I closed my eyes, filled my lungs, and clamped onto the pole.
The line tensed. The big bird leaned against it. I ducked to slip out the window and felt my butt lift off the sill. The hot air whooshed underneath and floated me up, out of the gap. If I opened my eyes, I would see the whole city thrown out around me—all the buildings and cars made into small toys. Beyond all that, the dark green woods and the River would roll out to the sea.
I opened my eyes. The line dangled from the end of the pole, busted. Stupid bird took my hook.
I stood between Rosalba and the TV. “I’m starving,” I said.
“Fix yourself something.” Rosalba stretched her neck to see around me. “You’re old enough.”
“But I need a hot meal. I’m still growing.”
She laughed. “You’re lucky it’s a commercial right now.” She walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “You want a quesadilla or grilled cheese?”
“Quesadilla,” I said. She pulled out the ingredients. At warp speed, I grabbed the watch and fishing pole from my room. Under the cover of crackling oil, I snuck out the front door.
I flew down the stairs, jumping the last four of each flight, and hit the street. I was a convict on the loose.
The cars chugged in place on Wilshire. I weaved between fenders and crossed to the shady side. The after-work crowd was out. I dodged through a forest of suits and high heels. When I ran past the upstairs lady, she flattened against the wall.
“Slow down crazy boy!” she yelled.
I ran on—past the fish-stinky restaurant where they kept crabs in a tank by the door and the three fingernail shops that smelled like Mom’s remover; past PK’s Liquor, Happy O Donut and the dirty bookstore; past a bum with flags flapping all over his shopping cart and sticking up from his hair; past a fat lady wearing a skirt so short I could see her red chonies—right up to the Royal Pawn.
I rang the bell. The door buzzed and I pushed inside. I was blind. Then I saw a hundred TV’s, all piled-up on a shelf. There were mini TV’s, TV’s as big as cars, a TV that was all red and one with a busted-in screen.
“Fishing pole, three dollars,” said a rough voice. I jumped. An old man sat behind a glass case in the back of the shop. His round glasses flashed like a cat’s eyes. “Not a big item in L.A.”
“No way I’m selling it.”
“I got a Viking hat for you. Special deal, five dollars.”
“I need a fishhook and some line,” I said.
“What are you catching?”
The old man gimped over and looked closely at my pole. He had brown, shiny skin and was barely taller than me. White hairs grew in his nostrils and next to his mouth. He smelled like the caca air from under the sidewalks.
“You need strong line, 30-pound minimum. Pigeon beaks are too sharp for regular line.” He lead me to a shelf heaped with hammers, saw blades and tools I couldn’t name. He took a box down from the shelf and showed me the fishhooks.
“$5 variety, $10 variety, $200 variety.”
The change in my pocket added up to $0.76.
“You should stick with fish fishing,” he said. “It’s easier on your gear, cheaper.”
“Know where I can fish fish?” I tried to use a normal voice, but excitement made it too high.
“Well it’s not far to the Los Angeles River. You could take the bus. There’s a faster way, but that’s not for everyone. Not for children.”
I held out the shiny silver watch. The old man studied it. Now his voice got high and crackly. He said, “I guess I can trade you some strong line and a hook for this ratty old thing.”
“Take me to the river,” I said.
“Sure about that?”
I was. I jiggled the watch so it twinkled.
“Well come on then,” he said, snatching the watch out of my hand.
Royal Pawn was much bigger than it seemed. We passed rows microwaves, DVD players, clocks, guitars. The air grew cooler and smellier. It tasted nasty in my throat.
We reached a green door marked CITY OF LOS ANGELES, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
“Right through here,” said the old man. He opened the door and shoved me through. “Have fun,” he said, as the door clicked shut between us.
Everything turned black. My breathing echoed down the tunnel. Starting to panic, I beat on the door and yelled, but the old man didn’t answer. I heard water dripping, farther ahead. I followed the sound, feeling my way along the wall.
My eyes slowly adjusted. The passage I was in had a low ceiling and narrow concrete walls. Where the concrete was busted overhead, I could see metal pipes, like guts.
There were scratching sounds all around. I’d seen rats the size of cats down by the dumpster. There was nothing to do, but walk on.
Suddenly, everything shook and rumbled. I screamed. It stopped. I heard man’s voice that seemed to come from above say, “Yo! Bring the jackhammer over here, man! You’re in the goddamn wrong spot. Jesus, we’re supposed to fix the street not fuck it up.”
“Aw shit, I don’t believe it,” said someone else.
The voices came through a chunked-up hole in the ceiling.
“Help!” I yelled. No answer. The shaking and pounding started again, so I ran. I reached a dead-end and had to choose which way to go. I picked the tunnel that seemed to have more light.
Mom would be worried sick. Rosalba would have called her by now. I smiled thinking of how she would regret grounding me, but I felt too scared to have much fun. I was probably hundreds of miles under the city. Maybe I’d be down here forever. I started to cry, but it sounded like ten people crying, so I shut up.
I walked on and on in the slimy darkness. Hours passed, could have been days. Finally, I came to a metal ladder and climbed into a higher tunnel. It was brighter, circular and metal. There was a sharp corner. Rounding this, I saw the opening. I had to cover my eyes against the light.
I almost walked right off edge of the pipe. The Los Angeles River flashed below me, like a knife in the sun. White water bubbled over the rocks. Purple leaves as big as umbrellas swayed above the grassy bank. A fish the size of my head leaped and landed with a fat splash. I held the pole tight, plugged my nose and jumped.
My feet hit the bottom hard and I fell butt-first into the water. The splash caught me in the face and soaked right through my clothes. It felt gritty and smelled even worse than the tunnel.
I stood up, dripping, and wiped my eyes. I stared around. My heart dove into my stomach. There was no nice, clear water here! There were no trees, no grass, no butterflies, toads, badgers, boats. No fish, for sure. How could this dump be a river?
As far as I could see, it was a paper-bag-colored trickle, not even knee deep. Clumped-up cans and paper cups cluttered the mud. Trash all over.
Where the riverbanks should have been, concrete walls cut into the sky. Tags covered both sides, up and down, saying: PHAT PHUCKER, MI13, WASTELAND, CHATA Y EUGENE 4-EVER. Most of it was too mixed-up for me to read.
I threw my pole spear-style up onto the bank and scrambled out, using cracks in the wall for grip.
I sat on top with the sun pounding my back and pulled up my knees so I could hide my eyes behind them.
The river I dreamed about probably didn’t even exist—not in the real world. All I wanted was somewhere sweet-smelling and cool, with plants and bugs and snakes and furry animals. That was just a baby-ass fantasy.