Night Stalkers

By Steven Ramirez
December 5th, 2014

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Uncle Este tells a story about going to high school with the serial killer Richard Ramirez and how once he and Richard started a band and called themselves The Gaylords.

“This was way before Ricky moved to L.A. and started shooting old ladies in the face,” Uncle Este says. “This was when he could barely lift a bass, much less play it.”

“But The Gaylords?” we all ask, me and my five brothers and 11 sisters and each one of my 600 cousins.

“This was before that word got all fucked up too,” Uncle Este says. “It didn’t used to mean all that joto bullshit. Besides, it wasn’t my first choice. But it was Ricky’s garage and I just wanted to play. What could I do?”

Then he’ll go on and on about the band, which was mostly just the two of them skipping school and doing no justice to AC/DC, Richard on bass and vocals, Uncle Este on guitar, in between songs the two of them talking about packing up and moving to L.A. without telling a single soul until they were already gone.

“But listen,” Uncle Este says. “I just wanted to play music and maybe starve a little. I wouldn’t have killed nobody. I don’t know much, but I know that.”

 

Esteban’s hair used to be long. Real, real long. But that was in the first grade when everyone’s hair, no matter what race or gender you were, could grow long and healthy and down to your ass like that. Esteban’s hair was so long and thick and black that one afternoon when Naco Dominguez tried to pick on him for wearing mismatched shoes Esteban made his hair into a noose and wrapped it around Naco’s gordo neck.

Naco fell to his knees. He made sick gagging noises. A crowd of students formed around them and Esteban, tightening his grip, shouted, “It’s a snake, it’s a snake! Call the police! Call the zoo! It’s pissed off and we’re all going to die!” but no one was brave enough to step forward because they believed it really was a snake—thick, black, and angry—hiding all these years beneath the swing set, waiting for this very day to attack.

Finally the playground monitor, an old wrinkly woman with a whistle in her mouth, took Esteban by his collar and tossed him into the sky and he eventually crashed through a roof and landed in a row of fold-out chairs in front of the principal.

“You could’ve killed him,” said Mr. Delgado.

Esteban shook his head. “Nah. I just wanted him to choke a little.”

That night, Esteban’s mom took a pair of garden shears and chased that snake right out the damn tree.

 

The principal was right,” Uncle Este says. “That was probably the closest I’ve ever been to killing someone. But once your grandma took my hair, she took something else too. Hell, that’s probably why she did it. Not because of any stupid principal or stupid suspension.”

We ask him what Grandma took. Besides the cobwebs and hair lice, we laugh.

“In ancient Aztec tribes,” Uncle Este says, “hair was a sign of warriorhood. The longer and thicker the hair, the more kills you’d made. But that was before murder and high-speed chases. That was when killing was like a damn parking ticket. It just happened sometimes. I don’t know. All I know is that once your grandma cut my hair, I could never grow it like that again. Not in the second grade, not in the third grade, and especially not in high school when I joined The Gaylords and prayed on my knees each night for the return of my beautiful and angry hair.”

“Now Ricky,” Uncle Este says, “Ricky had the hair. Waves and waves of hair. Much longer and thicker than mine ever was. And it made me think of a snake, of course. Returned from the past. Looking to finish what it had started.”

Here, Uncle Este secretly reaches an arm behind our necks in a line and pulls us in all at once. He squeezes and squeezes and squeezes.

“I am an Aztec warrior!” he screams. “My hair is strong! My hair is black! My hair will reach the moon!”

 

One afternoon, Esteban stood alone in a corner of Ricky’s garage, tuning his guitar for the tenth time, doing his best not to trip on the tangle of electrical cords running in and out the back door. Ricky had disappeared—he often disappeared—and while Esteban waited for the practice session to start, he continued adjusting knobs and plucking strings and holding the instrument real close to his ear as if the damn thing might reveal a secret. But he’d seen Jimmy Page do this on television and in his favorite rock magazines. Hendrix too. Right in the middle of their sets they’d do it, as if playing guitar wasn’t enough but they had to tune the damn things on stage too, maybe to show the audience that being really good at something also meant never being satisfied.

When Ricky finally returned, Esteban saw that he’d slicked back his hair and tied it up in a wet ponytail that dragged heavily behind him, gathering dirt and crumbs and car oil and a busted bicycle or two.

He took his place behind the mike and sang this song.

 

Este-man, Este-man,

lost and found.

Este-man, Este-man,

pound for pound.

Este-man, Este-man,

give me that sound.

The one so sweet

gonna burn the place down.

 

Esteban strummed another chord or two and then gave Ricky the thumbs-up, a gesture between bandmates that he’d also seen on television and in magazines. He took his guitar by the neck and ran his free hand through his own hair, which was certainly still there but was beginning to feel like cotton candy. Thin and loose and fluttering away. He remembered the first grade. He remembered mismatched shoes. He remembered the little pig noises Naco had made when he’d brought the culo to his knees. And he felt nostalgic, yeah, but a little regretful too, as if he’d missed his chance to really do something.

“Use it,” he suddenly heard, and it was Ricky again, talking into the mike.

“Huh?”

“Your guitar, Este-man. Use it or lose it. We gonna stand here? Or we gonna light a match and set this place on fire?”

 

Uncle Este shakes his head. He whistles air from out between his two front teeth.

Sometimes, when here comes Pops, or Aunt Rosie, or Uncle Danny up the driveway to pick us up from Grandma’s, to load us in the van, to take us away from this porch, take us back to where we all came from, we wonder if Uncle Este keeps on talking. If he don’t even need an audience to shake his head, to whistle air, to keep the show going.

“Ricky,” he says. “He was on all kinds of shit by then. It inflated him like a balloon with bad skin. Booze, yeah. Booze, of course. But any fool can drink booze. I’m talking hell in a shoebox. I’m talking dope, heroin, coke, LSD, Ritalin, Percodan, Nyquil, Dayquil, Seconal, Tuinal, gotta-have-it-all, purple acid, red acid, orange acid, all-the-colors-of-the-rainbow acid, and a shit-ton of McDonald’s cheeseburgers! Ricky, Ricky, Ricky. He was a black cat with blacker eyes, the kind you want to take in and save except you could see right through him, man, you could see it, the chemical haze that swished and swashed beneath him like the insides of a crystal ball, and Ricky, man, he glowed, I swear to God he glowed. He was a nuclear reactor and if we’d have plugged our equipment into his eye and ear sockets, we might’ve lit that match. Burned the city to the ground.”

“Maybe that was the secret,” Julian says.

Julian is Uncle Este’s only child with a woman who ain’t his wife no more but for some reason still stops by to watch TV with Grandma. Julian is six years old and already smart as shit. Everyone is relieved and a little curious about that.

“Electricity,” he says. “Nuclear power. Maybe that was why he had all that warrior hair.”

Uncle Este runs a hand across his own head, bombed out and depleted, and you don’t got to be a rocket scientist to add up the remaining hair like one, two, three.

“Trust me,” Uncle Este says. “If that was it we’d be drowning right now.”

 

If it had been up to Esteban, they might’ve practiced in that garage before an audience of paint cans and rusted tools and warm beer for the rest of their lives.

If it had been up to Esteban, he might’ve tuned and plucked and listened to the warped secrets of his guitar until the end of time.

But Ricky, who never went to school, showed up one morning, bright and early, just to sign up The Gaylords for San Vicente’s annual battle of the bands.

 

Actually,” says Uncle Este, “it was just a stupid talent show. With jugglers and dancers and ninja masters and even a wrestler called Chorizo who swore he could do a thousand pushups like nothing. But there was also one other band performing so, you know, we looked at it as a battle too.”

“So did he do it?” we ask.

“Yes. I already told you. Ricky signed us up.”

“No. Chorizo.”

“What about him?”

“Did he do the pushups?”

“Yes. No. Shit, I don’t know. The point is we needed a drummer. Aren’t you listening? Pendejos. You don’t win battles without a drummer.”

 

So there went Esteban, less than a month away from the battle, left to roam the hallways with an idea but zero direction, to listen to fools tap their hands across homeroom desks, to stalk members of the San Vicente marching band, percussion team, music appreciation club, asking anyone who’d take the two seconds to listen if they happened to know the difference between Keith Moon and Ringo Starr, John Bonham and Ringo Starr, a 20-car pileup, no survivors, and Ringo Starr, and if so, would they mind beating a drum on stage for three to four minutes? Five at the very most.

“It’s no use, Este-man,” Ricky said one afternoon at practice. The battle was one week away and Esteban had been said no to, and hell no to, by every drummer within a five-mile radius of San Vicente High, every drummer who swore they only played with real bands, with real talent, and what kind of stupid-ass name was The Gaylords anyway?

“I kind of knew it,” Ricky said.

“Knew what?”

“I knew that you and I would end up going it alone.”

“Thanks for the information.”

“Ah, it’s okay.” Ricky took a coil of extension cord and used it to tie his hair into another ponytail, this one wide and sharp enough at the ends to shatter every window on the block. “We don’t need nothing anyway. Just you and me, Este-man.”

“No drums? What’s a band without the drums?

Ricky shrugged. He lifted a bottle of Firedog off the ground and brought it to his lips for a long drink. “Shit, Este-man,” he said in between burps. “I don’t know what to tell you. You’re looking at it.”

They eventually plugged in and played for hours and hours—messy renditions of Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, Deep Purple, some Skynyrd, but mostly just AC/DC, heavy on the chords and caked in scratchy vocals. When their arms felt like wet noodles and their fingers bled, it was close to midnight. They sat down to share another bottle of Firedog. Ricky pulled a joint from his shirt pocket.

“What do you think The Dawn of Chaos is up to?” he said.

“The who?”

“Not The Who,” Ricky laughed. “The Dawn of Chaos. The other band? Our competition? C’mon, Este-man. Do your homework.”

Esteban reached for the joint. “They’re probably working on drum solos.”

Ricky laughed some more. “I know where they practice.”

“So?”

“So we should go check ’em out, Este-man.”

“Right now?”

“No, I was thinking next week. Yes, right now. There ain’t no other time but right now.”

“Okay,” said Esteban. “But only if we get to kidnap their drummer. We tell him he either joins us or we cut off his hands.”

Ricky pinched the joint between his fingers and took a deep inhale. His face tensed, his eyes watered, every vein seemed to leap from beneath his skin like garden snakes being flooded out of the darkest and most fertile of soils.

Finally, he exhaled. “You’re pretty sick, Este-man. You know that?”

Esteban put a hand against his forehead.

“That’s funny. I feel fine.”

Ricky passed the joint. He began pressing his wide palms into his own forehead, his cheeks, his chin and neck.

“Well, holy shit,” Ricky said. “So do I.”

 

Uncle Este still plays the guitar sometimes, except this one’s acoustic—sin ganas, he admits, don’t got no balls—but things happen, and he had to sell his electric at a garage sale before any of us were born. It’s hard to imagine a time before any of us were born.

“Who bought it? Jeffrey Dahmer?”

We laugh so hard the ground shakes and soon we’re all crying.

Uncle Este twists his face a little. “I don’t remember who bought it.”

“We’re just playing, Uncle Este.”

“No,” he says. “I really don’t remember.”

The guitar he’s got now may not have balls, or a fire rumbling beneath each string, but Uncle Este can still bend and hammer those suckers to make it sound like it’s plugged into something. He don’t even got to be in the same room and he’ll still know when we come by Grandma’s, will still pick that that thing up and give each of us our own secret entrance or exit music.

For example:

Real deep notes with a slow and clumsy rhythm for Ogie, who can’t walk five feet without breaking something he’s so fat and stupid. For real. One time Ogie tried to turn on a lamp so my Aunt Gloria could better see her gossip magazine and out of nowhere the bulb exploded and set the curtains on fire. No one even gets mad at him anymore. Ogie’s got the best intentions in the world and maybe that’s why so much shit catches fire around him.

For Gabby and Lucero, the youngest of the girl cousins, Uncle Este climbs the fret board until the notes sound like birds drinking water on a sunny day.

For Vanessa, who’s a little gordita, he plays the theme song to The Addams Family, but she’s too damn young to understand the difference so she just claps along with her chubby hands and cheers the whole thing on.

“She has a man playing guitar for her,” Pops’ girlfriend will sometimes say. “She knows who the real fool is.”

We roll our eyes and Pops tells the bruja to shut up.

But these days Uncle Este mostly plays the piano anyway, something he picked up after he moved back into Grandma’s house. It’s a small thing, and it’s been sitting in the corner of the living room for a hundred years. No one knows where it came from, not even Grandma, except that now Uncle Este gets to sit on it and so maybe it will be here for a hundred years more. And no, Uncle Este’s not nearly as good at it as guitar, but the way he sways his body, the way he closes his eyes and lets his shoulders go loose, you’d think he’d never been anywhere else but there. Right there. Most days Gramps is the only one who really listens. He sits on the couch and eats from a can of roasted peanuts while Uncle Este plays and plays and plays. Pops don’t like to talk about it, but sometimes he says this was pretty much all Gramps did the night the entire family formed a war party and snuck up on Uncle Este and poured all his booze down the kitchen sink.

“He didn’t say shit,” Pops laughs. “But he was there, and he sat next to Esteban, and he cracked open about 60 cans of peanuts, and that was help enough.”

One afternoon, Uncle Este was playing the piano and I took a break from the outside to request a song that wasn’t even a song but a funny phrase we’d made up earlier that day. Uncle Este was always saying he could play any song from this world or the next, so we liked to test him.

“Chunky Chunky Pedo Eater,” he repeated. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Then Uncle Este closed his eyes and started playing a song that was slow and sad, with heavy notes that pressed against my chest like tuning forks and we all shut up and listened. When Uncle Este finished I asked him what song that was and he looked at me kind of strange and said it was my song.

 

Uncle Este?” we say. “How many brothers and sisters did Richard Ramirez have?”

“He ain’t dead, you know.”

“Cousins?”

“Why you asking me? You can look this stuff up.”

“We can look everything up,” we say.

Uncle Este lights a cigarette. Then another. Then another. He blows out smoke in the shape of a shoebox, a tree, a thousand unopened cans of salted peanuts, all of it raining down like anvils upon our heads.

“Not everything, pendejos. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

 

The Dawn of Chaos held their practice in a garage not too far from Ricky’s house—five or six blocks maybe—but to Esteban, full of Firedog and dope and blood and bones, it felt like miles. He stumbled on and off curbs. He did barrel rolls down a few streets. He even puked twice, which made him feel a little better, a little more rock-and-roll, but each time he looked up to tell Ricky so, his friend was gone, disappeared from sight, only to reappear just as quickly—crazy, the whole thing, the whole damn march—Ricky moving like some kind of chameleon in a leather jacket. Midnight beast. Hair spilling down to his ankles, black as the sky above, singing:

 

Este-man, Este-man,

gonna make a case.

Este-man, Este-man,

with paint across his face.

Este-man, Este-man,

don’t let it go to waste.

Climb back inside your body.

This is the place.

 

And behind a line of prickly hedges Esteban awoke to find The Dawn of Chaos making such sounds in a garage across the street. There was Gustavo Hernandez on lead guitar. Gustavo in a power stance. Gustavo banging his head forward, bending his strings up and down, sending notes high and low in all directions. There was Omar Salazar on bass. Omar been playing since he was two years old. Omar with the giant holes in his thumbs. There was El Pulpo on vocals, hair like dirty tentacles and everyone knew he sang like Robert Plant, kind of looked like him, too, except a shade or two darker. And on drums, Gunter Vogt, the foreign exchange student who spoke in unintelligible syllables, who combed his hair in unintelligible waves, who came down on those drums like a man possessed, and he might as well have been shipped in from the ninth ring of Saturn the way he moved. The way they all moved. So dangerous and complete.

“It’s a band,” Esteban heard himself say. “Ricky. Ricky. It’s a band. We gotta get out of here, Ricky. The Dawn of Chaos, Ricky. Ricky. Ricky, we gotta go.”

But Ricky was gone. Esteban looked right and then left, behind him and in the hedges themselves. He took a swig off the Firedog in his hand, then puked it out in a long, clear stream. He wiped his mouth. He took another one.

This time when he looked up, Esteban saw that Ricky was across the street, standing in the driveway, inches away from the Dawn of Chaos, who didn’t seem to notice, kept playing and playing and the music increased in volume and soon it was pounding its way through Esteban’s head and heart. He rubbed at his eyes and when his vision cleared saw that Ricky had moved from the driveway to the roof of the house now, his hair spilling off the eaves like black rainwater. He rubbed his eyes again. Ricky inside the house. Ricky raiding the fridge. Ricky looking out from a bay window and wagging his bone-white finger. Esteban pressed both fists hard into his eyes and Ricky was in the garage now, standing over Gunter Vogt, smiling, his teeth yellowed and rounded out like kernels of carnival corn. He gathered up his hair like a thick coil of rope. He made a noose and fit it around Gunter’s throbbing neck. And then, before yanking the whole thing to kingdom come, he looked out across the street, stared hard at Esteban, who could feel his gaze crawl into each orifice and wide-open pore, could feel it scurry in his bloodstream like rats, around and around, clawing, digging, searching for something that he’d never find, because Esteban, Esteban, can you hear me, Esteban? You are weak, Esteban. You will crack, Esteban. People will sit like mountains upon your chest and you will cry uncle before them, Esteban. Esteban. Esteban….

“Esteban!” Ricky said. He was squatting next to him now, pushing the bottle of Firedog into his heaving chest. “So what do you think? We got a shot or what?”

Esteban looked across the street. The house was empty. The windows dark. The garage door shut and the whole damn block dead and buried in silence.

“It’s a battle,” he said. “Everyone’s got a shot.”

 

Uncle Este wants to know if we’ve ever seen pictures of him.

Of Richard Ramirez.

Of the serial killer.

Of the Night Stalker who shot an entire city in the face.

Uncle Este wants to know if we’ve ever seen him smile, if we’ve ever seen him laugh, if we’ve ever seen him look into a camera, stick out his serpent tongue, and maybe shoot up devil horns. He wants to know have we ever seen what’s carved into the palm of his hand? Have we ever loved something enough to put it forever into the palm of our hand?

Uncle Este then finds his place behind the piano. He blows on his fingers and sings this song.

 

The day of the battle, The Gaylords ditched school for some last-minute practice. The show was scheduled to take place during finals period and Esteban, plugged into his usual corner of the garage, secretly hoped to lose track of the time and miss the whole damn thing—oops! oh well! what can you do when the music’s in your bones?—but it was no damn use, he couldn’t stop watching the Budweiser clock nailed to the concrete wall. And as the hours passed and the sun dropped, it began to affect his playing. His fingers felt square and clumsy. He was missing easy chords, beginner solos. His guitar felt heavy against his chest and he grew frustrated and hurt.

“Let’s take a break,” Ricky said.

“We don’t got time for a break.”

“We’re taking a break.”

Ricky leaned his bass against a speaker and disappeared inside. When he returned, he was carrying a white shoebox.

“I got a gift, Este-man. A surprise just for you.”

Esteban frowned. He wasn’t in the mood for drugs, but when Ricky removed the lid he saw no dope, no hash, no pills, no booze, only a stack of photos, black and white, creased and dog-eared, piss-yellow at the edges.

Ricky squatted. He spread the photos across the floor like a deck of cards.

“What are those?” said Esteban.

Ricky smiled. “Inspiration,” he said. “Family fucking heirlooms.”

They were scenes of war. One after the other. Shattered windows. Burnt fields. Faraway skies and pillars of ferocious smoke. But mostly dead people. Men and women, children, babies, on their soft backs, their stomachs, lifeless creatures with their eyes bugged out, still as puddles of water, pressed hard against the earth, trampled and forever flecked with mud.

“My cousin,” Ricky said. “He took these. Can you believe it? He was there, Este-man. Like really, really there.”

Esteban was squatting next to Ricky now, and though the photos were equal in their grainy, stop-motion chaos—some of the strangers had holes in their heads, some had their limbs torn off, some were scorched from the neck down, and yet others looked completely at peace, unharmed, as if they’d simply dropped without warning—it was a little girl, not a day over 12, that caught Esteban’s attention. She lay stripped naked, arms folded across her body, hair caked in mud, and yet her eyes, Esteban saw, her eyes—wide open and searching, lost in some airy, wondrous thought. Lunch. A pet dog. Her mother’s voice. A lost game of checkers.

There were more, so many more, all of them rendered the same color by the quality of the camera, and he realized why everyone grasped onto the difference between a sudden death and a slow and painful one.

“Your cousin,” Esteban began, “you sure he took these?”

“War is a motherfucker,” Ricky said. “You know what he told me? He told me they used to save all the bombing for night. Know why? He said that’s when they looked the best, Este-man. Fucking big-ass balls of fire, shades of red and yellow and sometimes green that ain’t no one seen before. He called it the Fourth of July. He called every day the Fourth of July, and here are the photos to prove it.” Ricky shook his head. “Sometimes, Este-man, you can’t wait for the world to catch up. Sometimes you gotta make your own party.”

Esteban shrugged. He picked up his guitar and began playing scales, relieved to see that his fingers were back, his whole body was back, and how beautifully he moved up and down that fretboard like butter across a hot pan.

 

Did anyone come find you after Richard Ramirez was arrested?”

“There were no cops. If that’s what you mean.”

“That’s what we mean.”

“Yeah. Then no.”

“You ever visit him?”

“In jail? No, by then I hadn’t spoken to him for years. Anyway, he had plenty of fans to keep him company.”

“He had fans?”

“They all have fans. And you know what else? I think he’s married now. Shit. I think he’s a Christian too.”

“Married and Christian? How does someone like that stay married and Christian?”

“You’re asking me?”

We crack up. Even Julian gets the joke. He covers his tiny mouth, watches us roll on the floor and his shoulders jerk a little.

“And his hair? Whatever happened to all that hair?”

Uncle Este starts with the cigarettes. He blows sour smoke into our faces. He laughs at the way we grab for our throats, fake gagging noises.

“Floating in space,” he says. “With Elvis and Bigfoot and all that lost luggage.”

“And the Loch Ness Monster?”

“And the Loch Ness Monster.”

“And the Bermuda Triangle?”

“And the Bermuda Triangle.”

“And Ogie’s deodorant?”

“And most definitely Ogie’s deodorant.”

We’re on the ground again, laughing and rolling in circles, tangling up our small, rubbery bodies in the feet of anyone who dares pass.

“And your electric guitar?” we ask.

“No,” says Uncle Este. “That’s still here. That’s on planet Earth.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I know.”

“Yeah, but how do you know?”

“I don’t know. How does anyone know anything? I can feel it. And sometimes, if I close my eyes, if I get real quiet, I can hear it too. Listen.”

 

Esteban was drunk by the time they arrived at San Vicente’s auditorium for the talent show/battle of the bands. His head was cloudy. His blood warm. He felt as if he was moving inside a deep blue cocoon. He felt funny and safe.

Backstage, various performers were milling around, pacing, doing their best not to step on each other’s props and equipment and limbs and, in some cases, bare feet. Through the soggy dark, and though he couldn’t be sure, Esteban thought he spotted jugglers and bowlers and magicians and clowns. The sound of a dog barking. The smell of kerosene. One dude from his third period, Carlos something, sat against a wall, polishing a tall bow and arrow before closing one eye and aiming it at who else but Chorizo, across the way, busy doing a thousand pushups in preparation for a thousand more. But The Dawn of Chaos, Esteban wanted to know, doing his best to stay upright, to scan the inky and ever-shifting space. Where the hell was The Dawn of Chaos?

“Probably gonna be late,” said Ricky.

“It is late.”

“Probably gonna be later than late.”

“But it is late,” Esteban said again, his words oozing like syrup down his chin. “It is late, Ricky. It is late, it is late, it is late!”

“Jesus Christ, Este-man. They’ll show. I promise. This a battle or what? The Dawn of Chaos is coming, baby. Got no choice. Far as I’m concerned, it’s already here.”

Then, Ricky took Esteban into his arms. He sang this song:

 

Este-man, Este-man,

what you crying for?

Este-man, Este-man,

why you acting sore?

Este-man, Este-man,

don’t open up that door.

The stage is filled for gods,

ready to wage war.

 

And that’s the end.

 

That’s the end? What do you mean that’s the end?”

“I mean that’s the end. I mean that’s all I remember.”

Hell-ooo?” we sing. “That can’t be the end, can’t be all you remember, because what about the battle? We don’t even know who won the battle. You can’t end the story, Uncle Este, without telling who won the battle to end all battles.”

“Of course I can. Especially when that’s not how this story ends.”

“Okay, Uncle Este. Okay, okay. Now we’re talking. Now we’re getting somewhere. So tell us—please, please, please! pretty please with a peanut on top!—tell us then how it really ends.”

“All right, all right. Fine. Geez. If you pendejos must know, I puked. Okay? I puked and I puked and I puked. I puked down my shirt. I puked into my pants. I puked through my socks, removed both shoes and like size-nine bread bowls I filled them up with puke. Puke. Puke, puke, puke. And when I was done puking, when half my body weight made a pukey puddle at my pukey feet, I passed out. Didn’t even make it on stage. The end. Amen. Good night, folks! God bless America!”

“You didn’t even make it on stage? How did you not make it on stage? After all that, Uncle Este, how the hell you gonna sit there and tell us you didn’t make it to the goddamn stage?”

“Hey,” Uncle Este snaps. “Watch your mouth. Don’t let no one hear you talking like that. You know who they’ll come for. You know who they’ll blame. Besides,” he said, “I couldn’t make it on stage. Haven’t you been listening to a damn word I said? I had no business on stage. The stage is hell. The stage is war. Open up your little ears when I tell you the stage is no place to be.

“So then you forfeit,” we say. “So then the Dawn of Chaos wins. The end, the end, the end.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“So then Ricky took your guitar. So then he learned all the parts. So then it was a one-man show. The upset of the century.”

“I didn’t say that either.”

“So then what are you saying, Uncle Este? Uncle Este, what the hell are you saying?”

“I’m saying that language is going to get me in trouble. I’m saying I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in so much trouble. I’m saying I woke up inside Ricky’s garage. I’m saying I don’t think I ever left Ricky’s garage. I’m saying by then he was gone, disappeared, this time forever, but not without a note. I’m saying there was a note. Something about Hollywood. Something about Este-man. Something about quiet streets and a party by the ocean. I’m saying Ricky chased down his party by the ocean. What I’m saying is, if not for the puke I would’ve gone with him. What I’m saying is choose your battles. What I’m saying is this: salvation sometimes comes in smelly packages. That’s all I’m saying.”

More smoke. Ogie cuts a fart.

“We would’ve brought you back.”

“What are you pendejos talking about? None of you were born yet. You were all little seeds floating in space. Space junk,” he laughs. “You were all space junk.”

“We would’ve brought you back.”

“Yeah,” Uncle Este says. “Probably.”

 

Another birthday. Another Easter. Another Thanksgiving and Christmas. Pops brings over the best holiday wine Walmart can offer and then he acts hurt, everyone so hurt, when Uncle Este takes up a glass, wants to taste those magic notes.

Over dessert Julian’s mom snatches him up and moves to Tucson. Grandma watches television alone. Gramps sleeps inside a peanut can. I feel hair at the back of my neck.

These are the signs.

A war party is forming.

 

It’s late. The doors are locked. All the good cereal’s gone. So we sneak into Uncle Este’s room and rifle through his things. Gibran tries to play guitar but cuts his fingers on the steel strings until he’s making blood, not music. Ogie lights a cigarette, just like the movies, he says, but he can’t take two puffs without choking and coughing and spitting and setting off car alarms, waking up the whole damn block.

“Check it out,” Gibran suddenly says. He’s deep inside Uncle Este’s closet, wedged between racks of jeans and slacks, and he sticks out an arm to wave us closer. Ogie and I stand over him and watch him pull out a white shoebox. He places it on the bed and we stare at it.

“Open it.”

“You open it.”

“I’ll open it.”

Ogie stubs out his cigarette and reaches for the lid.

I think I hear Uncle Este’s truck in the driveway, his feet against the hallway carpet. It’s too damn late, and I don’t want to be in this room anymore.

“Wait,” I say. “Maybe don’t open it.”

“You’re a pussy,” Ogie says, and then opens it anyway.