liberty

 


A clerk wielding a Remington Rand had pounded his full legal name, Earl Anthony Jones, Jr., onto the original 1969 business license fading on the wall by his chair, the window chair. In the double frame next to it, an old snapshot of his daughter, all arms and legs, was balanced by a recent, professional portrait showing the aspiring actress in New York. His grandfather, Anthony Jones, bought the Clay Street shop in 1923, the beginning of Jones & Sons, Barbers. Anthony was the confident sort—three chairs, one barber, no sons. Five years into the business, he’d acquired a second barber, a steady stream of juke jiving men who hit Oakland’s 7th Street clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, and a son he named Earl.

Earl took the business into the next generation, holding on to his father’s customers and adding, as they arrived by the score, their sons. He kept a pot of coffee going for men who arrived in the morning and left late in the afternoon, perhaps having refreshed their cup in the back room a time or two with a shot of bourbon. The big-voiced men dissected the world from Earl’s chairs, told stories and bragged on their war service, glad to be home.

On the day Mrs. Jones brought two-year-old Earl Jr. into the shop for his first haircut, Big Earl, as his customers now called him, was attending to a rotund man, combing pomade into hair cut close on the sides and back but piled high in front like the prow of a ship.

“Who that little shaver?” the man had asked.

“Oh, he local,” claimed a customer returning from his third trip to the back room. To his mother’s dismay, the odd retort wrapped its loving arms around her child and held on. By the time he was twenty, Local Jones worked the third chair in his father’s shop.

 

Local Jones put coffee on. It was for old farts like him. Young men today preferred energy drinks, chemo-green or blue as radiator fluid. Nothing you’d want to slip a shot into. The aroma of coffee, dark roasted and oily, threaded the shop, floating on the back of pomade and the astringent lotions that put the sting in a close shave. Jones took up his broom and swept through a big yellow butter pat morning sunlight had thrown on the floor. He tried a shop assistant once but the floor never looked right when someone else did it. When he reached the door, he flipped the sign from Closed to Open and waited while Officer James Boscana parked his black and white cruiser at the curb. Jones raised his hand to the beat cop and opened the door.

Boscana climbed out and called to Jones over the car’s roof. “You see any suspicious-looking types hanging around here yesterday?”

“Everybody come into my place a suspicious-looking type,” Jones replied. Bada-boom. Their favorite joke. Then he reached back inside for a bright pink box. “You want a donut?” He popped the lid on a dozen sugar-dusted, crispy-edged jelly donuts fat and snug as sleeping babies under a blanket of waxed paper. “Here,” he said pushing the box toward Boscana. “I’ll get you a coffee, too.”

“No, thank you,” Boscana said and held up his hands to ward off the persistent generosity of Local Jones. Five years ago, a rookie cop new to the beat, Boscana took routine shit from Old Oakland merchants. But not from Jones. Boscana was welcome in the little wormhole back to 1923. The chairs, white as hospital cabinets and upholstered in black leather, swiveled on shiny nickel stems bolted to red and white floor tiles. The original mirror ran the length of the shop and threw a broad bar of reflected sunlight against the opposite wall.

“You never take nuthin’?” Local asked. “Because I mean don’t let me hear you take a Coke and chips from some place up the street and don’t take nuthin’ from me.”

“Don’t make me haul you in, old man.” That was their oldest joke. That Jones, a man who’d worked every day of his adult life in the same 500 square feet, was unpredictable, the kind who’d fly off the rail in a minute.

“You want a haircut? I got time.”

Boscana removed his forage cap and checked the mirror. He ran his hand through the short bristles of his black hair. Crescent moons shone white above his ears. “Don’t think I need one just yet.” While Jones put his broom away, Boscana pulled a phone from the pocket of his black shirt. Jones had cut his hair ten days ago. Maybe he forgot.

“For real,” he said when Jones returned. “That Mexican place around the corner? It was hit yesterday in the afternoon. Lunch over, dinner still two hours out. Staff in the kitchen eating with the family. No gun. No confrontation. Guy jimmied the old wooden door and got the cash drawer out.”

“Neighborhood fella do it?”

“The cook came out when the drawer popped open; heard the bell. But the guy was halfway out the door and took off on a bike weaving through traffic. They couldn’t catch him on foot.”

“What he look like?”

“They only saw him from the back. Five ten maybe, thin, long legs. Short puff of coppery hair. All I know.”

“You sure it’s a man?” Jones asked.

“Well, you make a good point there.”

 

Dispatch was quiet. Boscana swung through the West Oakland BART station, taking the temperature of the neighborhood. Just people going to work on a summer morning. Doubles made for long days and he hoped this one would stay easy as he headed east on 5th into Jack London Square, a mixed bag of properties along the estuary and demarcated by crisscrossing freeways, rail lines, and the towering white cranes of the Port of Oakland. All of it shoulder-to-shoulder with low-end motels, the kind of bars that feature a small stage with a pole, cheap counters that served breakfast all day, and, sprinkled among the produce wholesalers, meat and fish distributors that supplied Chinatown restaurants.

There were signs the neighborhood was turning—a condo high rise, some pricier farm-to-table restaurants, a liquor store that catered to the tastes of hipsters who couldn’t afford San Francisco rents but knew Napa wines. Up and down the estuary, warehouses that had served the port a century ago were being converted one by oneintocavernous lofts. Just out of the academy, Boscana bought one in a red brick factory that had manufactured paper bags in the early 1900s. The area still had pockets of trouble. A recent murder at a club on 3rd. Sideshows in the small hours of the night that laid hot rubber on little used streets and sometimes put bullets in the air, one randomly catching a two year-old and ending his brief life. Boscana turned onto his street to do a drive by.

He found a body slumped near the curb. Female. Folded onto her knees. The hump of her rear end pointed at the sky, her head wedged under a parked car. As he approached, his worst fears were confirmed. It was his fiancé Noël trying to coax another stray dog into her arms. Things had been chill in the bedroom since he volunteered for double shifts a year ago. He needed another surgery and wanted it over and done before the wedding. Noël, alone much of the time, began rescuing soon after, starting with a pregnant bitch ready to deliver. They’d lived with at least one and as many as five miserable, flea-infested dogs since. Goodie Jackson, who drove the white ASPCA van, now made their loft a regular stop. Boscana parked and walked over.

“C’mon, baby.” Noël’s voice bounced around the hard surfaces under the Honda. “Who is mama’s baby love?” she cooed, so sugary that Boscana’s chest squeezed into a knot. He dropped to one knee and cleared his throat afraid that if he startled Noël she might crack her skull on the frame of the car she was now halfway beneath. “I’m your baby love,” he said.

“Jazz?” Noël wiggled back into daylight. A brown ball of matted fur burst free behind the Honda and raced away. “Now I’ve lost him.” Her tone proved nothing had changed since they’d gone to bed late the night before, depleted from their efforts to understand each other.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Apologies still hovered about his lips and tongue.

“No you’re not. If anything you’re glad.”

“We did just get the carpets cleaned and the space flea bombed.”

“Jazz. . .”

Boscana rose and pointed to his nameplate. “James,” he said. “When I’m in uniform it’s James. We agreed.”

“Jazz, look around this wasteland,” she opened her arms to encompass the warehouses and truck lots. “You see any people?” A symphonic funk of grating gears and loose bolts interrupted them. They both turned. Noël brushed dirt from her knees. The building’s garage door rolled up inch by grinding inch to reveal their neighbor Emilio, who gripped the laser-bright handlebars of a green, factory-perfect bike radiating outrageous brilliance from every spoke and bar. Had his grin been any bigger, it could’ve jumped off his face and lived on its own.

“Even the saddle bags have that new car smell,” he boasted, and kicked off into the street.

“You better get going, too,” Noël said, smiling at Boscana, Emilio, or the thought of getting back to her dog, it was hard to say; but when Boscana kissed her, she leaned into him before turning away.

 

Emilio flew through an industrial stretch, passing coffee roasters that put the sharp brown bite of their burn in the air. His tires buzzed like winged insects against the knobby asphalt. He came to California three years ago, just after college, to make his living teaching conversational Spanish to Anglos; halting, rudimentary conversations in beginning Spanish with people planning vacations. Students asked him, “¿Dónde vives?” in American accents hard enough to break his bones. When he answered Oeste Oakland, they always remarked in English about violence, startled that he lived there of all places and asking did he feel safe. “En español, por favor,” he reminded them. And they would retreat, asking, “¿Dónde vivió en México?”

He was from a small village in the mountains between Puerto Vallarta and Mexico City. He kept his voice lively despite the likelihood his conversational partner would then say he should never have left such a paradise and they had first gone when the kids were in school and what a difference it had made in their outlook on life, slowing down like that. He was wrong for leaving, had landed in the wrong neighborhood and no choice he could ever make would escape the laughing judgment they offered as evidence of their goodwill.

Emilio sailed along, hugging the curb, gliding in and out of tree shadows splattered todo morocho on the road like huge fried eggs, the new bike handling as smooth as the estuary at dawn. At Washington, he slipped left toward the freeway, leaning into the turn and taking it wide. He had good speed but the light turned red just as he hit 5th. Under the freeway, on the opposite corner, Goodie Jackson, who he’d gotten to know from her frequent stops to gather up Noël’s orphaned animals, waited out the same light in her white ASPCA van. He raised his arm and waved. She leaned out the driver’s side and yelled something that made her enormous, old-school sunnies bounce on her big-cheeked grin.

“Way to go, baby!” she shouted in passing when the light changed. She slapped out a series of beeps and kept the horn party going until she made the turn onto 2nd.

Emilio kicked forward. He had to keep his eyes on the road or risk losing his wheel gleam to the bird shit and gnarled vomit that paved the 880 underpass. When he first opened the studio, he formed the habit of naming out loud, in English, everything he saw on his daily commute. It was something he encouraged his students to do, too, to make a game of vocabulary building. If he saw something for which he had no words, he would look up a translation as soon as he got to his office and make a note on index cards that he reviewed between classes.

He had this stretch of Old Oakland down. The underpass never changed and he was able to say, without having to glance up and risk his wheels: huddled man wearing an enormous blue parka, its fur-trimmed hood pulled tight rain or shine, winter or summer; OPD headquarters and Superior Court, plain clothes detectives hurrying to Crown Vics, their Glocks clipped to their belts; TV news vans positioning their anchors and running up their antennas, knots of young men working the corners, handing out bail bond cards and key chains; and a queue of people called to jury duty.

He cleared the shadow of the freeway and slowed at 7th. He stood, gliding a minute before swinging his right leg over the seat so that he now balanced his full weight on the left pedal, his right foot tucked behind his left. Riding side saddle, he coasted up to the sawhorse barriers at 8th. Every Friday a little mercado sprang up at the intersection of Washington and 9th. From that axis the market radiated out one block in all four directions—to the Marriott on 10th at the edge of downtown, Broadway and Chinatown to the east, south to 8th, and west to Clay Street and Swan’s. He walked his bike through stalls of handmade soaps, long-stemmed flowers nodding in white buckets, smoky sweet incense, and jewelers bending wire and stringing beads. Housewives from Chinatown shopped for garlic, eggs, honey, olives, and almonds. He threaded through chocolatiers and pie bakers, and passed a tent selling kettle corn which was dreadful. Food trucks, just starting to heat their oil and chop vegetables, had taught him to love the sighing-vowel and soft consonant sounds of bahn mi, samosas, pad Thai, po’boys.

He made a breakfast from samples. Frutas y verduras were easy to remember: plums, oranges, apples, grapes, and strawberries from the Central Valley, picked by people who looked like him. Other produce had been harder to learn; especially the herbs—those pungent green, purple, and black leaves tied with string and labeled in kanji. The silver lining was he overcame his initial shyness about speaking English in the U.S. Emilio, blessed with persistence as well as intelligence, asked what things were and, in striking up conversations, he’d grown accustomed to street vernacular and idiom. He learned to joke. Among the amas de casa pushing fold-up wire shopping trolleys or strollers heaped with bags and bundles of fresh food, a baby in there somewhere, he’d met Xi and his new home opened to him through his first U.S. friend.

 

“Now there’s a stray ought to be picked up,” Goodie said as she brought the van to a stop behind the flashing red lights of a railroad crossing barrier. Her remark was directed at a young man standing on the opposite corner of Embarcadero & Clay among the thin string of reverse commutes just off the ferry from San Francisco. He was noticeable for his five-inch platform stilettos, a bit scuffed but otherwise looking fine. He wore what Goodie knew from shopping resale stores with a religious fervor to be a 1970s Diane von Fürstenberg jumpsuit of black and gold geometric patterns on a white ground, cinched at the waist with a gold lamé belt. His right hand held a burning cigarette and, swinging on the curled forefinger of his left, an auburn bubble wig, cut to fall just below the ear. Despite the shadow of a patchy beard, he’d taken the trouble to reapply a summery pink lipstick. The 7:45 AM Capitol Corridor, destination Sacramento and the business of state government, blasted its approach in one continuous wall of chest-convulsing horn. When the final car cleared the intersection, the stylish young man took a drag from his smoke, then ground it out and stepped into the crumbling intersection as sure-footed as a Billy goat in his toe peeps.

Goodie took a left onto Embarcadero. At Washington, an Oakland squad car hugged the curb opposite the Regal Cinema. Seeing it, Noël ducked low in her seat.

“Let’s skip Chicken-N-Waffle,” Goodie said with a frown. “Eat outside the Square.”

 

His beige Choos, already chipped at the heel, were taking a beating from the crumbling sidewalks. Though his wedged feet were rubbed raw, the thought of walking barefoot through the underpass at 5th gave his stomach, already queasy from the excesses of the previous evening, a threatening lurch. He should’ve come home when the Castro Street bars closed but he’d taken a Viagra and why waste a four-hour erection? He checked the front of the von Fürstenberg to make sure he wasn’t offending and hurried along, anxious to get to his office near Swan’s and switch to his mild mannered day job self. His grandparents and great aunts would still be at tai chi on Alice Street near the Post Office. No danger there. His brother, two years younger, would be BARTing north to Berkeley where he was in the Haas School of Business at Cal. The real danger was his mother or father running to the Friday market to pick up something for the restaurant.

To avoid that possibility, Xi jogged left to pick up Clay despite extra yardage on dogs already howling. He pulled himself up to his full five feet six as he approached the big window of Jones & Sons, winking at his barber where Mr. Jones stood guard over the neighborhood. Xi hoped at least his hair looked good as he hobbled past. Another half block to the housewives’ market. He ran the last few yards to Xi’s Travel and slid his key into the lock. He was one twist short of home free when he heard his name called by a familiar voice and froze.

“Herbert?”

His heart shrank to the size of a BB. Xi whipped around, caught his heel on the brick pavers of the little plaza and fell back against the door. “Emilio,” he cried with relief, forgetting he was wearing women’s cocktail pajamas, five inch heels, and Revlon Moisturizing Frost Lipstick in a shade called Peekaboo Pink.

“You are doing . . .?” Emilio’s English failed.

“The walk of shame,” Xi said hurrying inside. He stopped, facing the interior, placed his left hand on its corresponding hip, cocked it high in the air and shot a smoldering pout back over his shoulder, his lips a pink rosebud. With lowered his eyes, he threw his chin in the air and demanded, “Repite.

Walk. Of. Shame.” Emilio dutifully pronounced and then gave his friend the thumbs up.

Xi peeled a sticky note from the back of his door and slapped it on the front: Back in 5 minutes. He shut the door and, leaning against it, kicked off his Choos. Bullet dodged but—Oh. His. Head. The thing about Moscow Mules is they will kick your pretty ass all the way home.

 

“Depends on what you want.” Goodie pushed away what remained of the Chicken-Fried Steak and Eggs Special, mostly skid marks where her bulldozing biscuit had sought the last drop of everything. They’d gone only as far as Jingletown. “The dick or the vajayjay.”

“You know it’s more than that,” Noël said. She’d barely touched her Stubby, a comparatively modest platter of two wings, a waffle, biscuit, and the yellow eye of a fried egg.

“I got the vajayjay, s’all I’m saying.” Goodie helped herself to a wing from Noël’s plate.

 

Buenos Días Español didn’t face the street, one of its many charms—fewer distractions, less noise, and, important in summer, cooler. The L-shaped interior courtyard of the old housewives’ market was shaded by surrounding buildings. On opposite sides of the fountain at its center, the courtyard’s anchor tenants, Buenos Días Español and, across the brickwork, Xi’s Travel, represented in the fly-weight division of the service economy.

Emilio slipped his key into the lock on the aluminum frame and opened the door to colors that were, as one of his students had said, “Native bright!” With his bike tucked against the blood red wall behind his desk at the back of the room, he set about tidying a ring of white folding chairs that took up much of the interior. The coffee table held picture books and magazines from Mexico, Central America, and Spain. Low bookshelves kept dictionaries and phrase books within easy reach for Conversation Time. Wall maps allowed beginners to find and say a few words about where they were traveling. Week-old flowers drooped in vases scattered around the room. Emilio gathered these and wrapped them in newspaper. Once he had the vases washed and refilled, he set them about the room and left for the mercado to buy replacement bouquets in lively colors that would really pop against the primary blues, reds, and yellows of Native bright Buenos Días Español.

 

Officer Avilla, a two-year veteran to Boscana’s five, started the minute he buckled his seat belt and kept the riff at full throttle without much conversational help from his partner. The guy could ruin a small space faster than a mosquito. It made for a long second shift. Noël just had no idea.

“The Mayor has fucked us to pieces. You know that, Jimmy? Started with that Occupy shit. We had ’em.” Avilla watched the street as he spoke. “I mean we had those bastards flat out and what does she do?”

“Yeah, well,” Boscana replied, keeping it neutral.

“Hey, Blue Bottle. Cuppa joe?”

Boscana pulled up at the bean roaster and put the cruiser in neutral. “I’ll stay by the computer,” he said.

Avilla popped out of the cruiser and entered the big-windowed brick and steel shop famous for high octane shots and jived his way to the front of the line, a borderline abuse of uniform that irritated the hell out of Boscana, though it did bring Avilla back promptly.

“Look,” Avilla said, throwing a leg and hip into the front seat, the rest of him thudding in after. “Our line in the General coulda been saved if she hadn’t forced us to put helicopters in the air every night for months is what I’m saying.”

Boscana passed on the invitation to look at his partner’s argument and, instead, glanced left prior to turning. The Egyptian who sold shawarma and kabobs out of his blue-paneled truck on Webster waved. Boscana nodded and returned the vendor’s easy smile.

 

Local Jones cracked the snap on the cape tenting his customer and swung it away from the man’s neck and shoulders in a toreador move he’d perfected over forty plus years in the shop. A newer move, one for which he had as yet little practice, was concealing the persistent tremor in his hands. It was around the holidays, when he’d had so many clients back to back, that he first noticed a jangly little nerve cork-screwing from deep in his shoulder up through his neck. First, his right hand trembled. Then, a few weeks later, his left shared the same little shiver as though the two had discovered something exciting; a secret they kept from him. He tried cutting down on caffeine but to no effect.

Working the chair next to him, Bill Mason, his Tuesday/Thursday tattoo cut man, carved the Dubs logo into the back of a young man’s head. It was a precise business wielding a shaver to carve out a basketball bouncing over the Golden Gate Bridge. Jones turned his back to the second chair to clean and put away his combs and scissors. When he glanced to the mirror, Mason was looking right at him.

When he wasn’t with a customer, Jones stood at the window and made sure some version of shit did not trouble this section of Clay. Even standing still, he buzzed like Mason’s shaver. All the time now he could feel it, whatever “it” was, sizzling in his brain like white grease on a black skillet. On his fortieth birthday, he’d laughed along with everyone else, making old man jokes he didn’t really believe but the occasion called for them. He was still in his prime and his wife loved him. At fifty the jokes weren’t as funny and his back hurt at the end of the day. Crossing sixty, he could feel the needle flirting with Empty. His feet ached by noon; his back could go with one wrong move. He became cautious. He was afraid to go to the doctor and putting it off made it worse. Then she died; just okay one day and dead six months later from a fast-moving cancer nobody saw coming. Now he was terrified. He’d spent his entire working life in this one room. Not that it hadn’t been good to him, but . . . his entire life.

 

Hasta luego.” Emilio held the door for students who filed past shouting or murmuring adios. He shut the door and pumped his fist in the Friday air. A line of food trucks waited just around the corner. Throughout class whiffs of empanadas, grilled sausages, roasted chicken, some red-hot spicy thing—any of which would be excellent washed down with an icy horchata—teased his appetite. He slid a rubber band up over his pants cuff and walked his bike to the front where he leaned it against his leg and pulled the door open. He could easily walk the half block to market. He chose to ride for the sheer pleasure of owning a new bike. Across the courtyard, staring straight at him, Xi’s yellow note lied, Back in 5 minutes. Using a process he’d learned to call deductive logic, Emilio guessed Herbert was sleeping one off on the long, deep couch of Xi’s Travel. He settled his bike against the interior window wall, walked over, and tapped the glass.

From inside came a deep moan and the soft tumble of something falling to the floor. A single, blood shot eye appeared between slats of window blind. Emilio gave a little finger waggle. The door of Xi’s Travel opened just enough to permit one red eye sufficient orbit to swing to the left and then roll to the right before settling on Emilio.

“¡Ay!”he yelped, seeing the killer hangover in his friend’s face. “Man, you need anything?”

Xi’s voice was no more than a whisper, “I need a soda, baby.” After a few wet coughs to rearrange throat phlegm, he added, “A plate of chicken and rice wouldn’t hurt.”

“Will you be able to open today?” Emilio fingered the sticky note on the door.

“Emmie, nobody actually comes here.” Xi gripped the door with one hand and covered his eyes with the other. “That’s for my parents. My customers are on the phone or online. I’d probably faint if someone came through the door.” The speech deflated him like a balloon long after the party was over.

Emilio launched from Xi’s door with the determined wince of a man whose self-proclaimed mission was to set right the mistake of another. In the mercado, he bought chicken and rice and loaded the white Styrofoam square into his saddle bag along with a dozen artisanal tortillas. He ate a Vietnamese salad of fresh herbs and grilled shrimp sprinkled with chopped peanuts, the whole thing topped with green cilantro and orange carrot strips and dressed with a vinegary sauce. At Two Bois Bakery he let loose on a half-dozen chocolate-chip peanut butter cookies and then pedaled over to Mama Desta’s liquor store on Clay where he locked his bike to street sign and went in.

Emilio tugged a six pack of Coke from the cold case along the back wall. One can just was not going to do it for Señor Xi. At checkout, a young man, maybe sixteen and sporting a copper colored pouf of hair, stepped aside to let Emilio go first. From the relative safety of a Plexiglas box, the counter man rang up the Coke. Emilio added a phone card, meaning to call his mother in Mexico before heading home tonight. Outside, he arranged the last of his purchases in his saddle bags and kicked off from the curb.

 

From the window, where he watched the street but listened to the A’s game, Local Jones saw Herbert’s friend, the Spanish teacher, glide by. He was followed by a loping puff of copper hair atop a lanky frame and a pair of long legs. Jones pulled an ancient flip phone from his trouser pocket and, pausing only to scratch his ear, punched up his contact list, arriving almost immediately at Boscana, Officer J.

“Hey,” Jones said when Boscana picked up. “Duracell just go by.”

“Coppertop?”

“Could be. Five ten, skinny, long of leg.”

“What’s his 20?”

“He headed toward Swan’s. I think.”

Boscana pocketed his phone and said, “We have reliable eyeballs on a person wanted for questioning in the Mexican break in.”

“Your man Local Jones?” Avilla said. “The one barber Neighborhood Watch Team?”

“My man Jones,” Boscana replied, careful to keep his voice neutral.

 

Emilio dug through his saddle bags to resurrect the carton of chicken and rice and six-pack of carbonated brown sugar water known to have an ameliorating effect on the recently hammered. There was no answer to his knock at Xi Travel so he put his ear to the mail slot above the handle. The radio was on, good sign, and water ran. Emilio set the chicken and Coke close to the door and crossed the narrow plaza, pushing his bike along by the back of its seat. He opened his door and was greeted by a thin layer of sweet smelling rot, not at all unpleasant whiffs of green going to slime wrapped in newspaper. He’d forgotten to take the old flowers to the trash. He leaned the bike against the wall near the door and glanced over to Xi’s.

He was reluctant to leave the food there, especially at this hour when men from the rescue mission on Washington hovered around the edge of the mercado hoping to score a bite. It was another half hour before his afternoon group. He could run the soppy old flowers to the bins at the end of the alley, come back, knock again at Xi’s, eat a cookie, review some flash cards, and be ready to roll at 1:30. He scooped the flowers up out of the bathroom sink in back and sprinted into the plaza and down the alley, keeping one ear cocked toward Xi’s door.

Emilio sidestepped a trio of accordion, guitar, and violin tuning up prior to taking the tidy, hay bale stage at the mercado, leapt over a pair of generators supplying electricity to the trucks on 9th, and hoisted the lid on a 3-yard dumpster, tossing in the flowers and letting the lid slam. Perhaps this broad band of noise and confusion prevented him from identifying the substrata of screaming that was, in fact, Herbert Xi repitiendo, “He’sgotyourbikehe’sgotyourbike.” It was when Emilio turned and saw his friend Herbert, wet from the shower and clutching a towel to his waist, that random data inputs rearranged into the distinct impression that something was wrong. It took him another second to see a copper-haired youth run his new bike down the alleyway and hop on just as he made Clay Street.

“¡Ay, ay, ay!” Emilio took off running. In ten long strides he was at Xi’s Travel. “Herbert!” he begged in passing and Xi, still holding his towel and the chicken, joined the chase.

 

Jones stayed at the window, watching, his fingers wrapped around his phone, clutching it for no good reason except it connected him to Boscana and possibly because it kept his trembles from the prying attention of Bill Mason. The Spanish teacher raced into the frame, catching Jones by surprise. He was followed by Herbert Xi, the fingers of one hand digging into a clamshell of Styrofoam, the other hand holding a towel flapping at his waist.

Jones ran outside. “Whoa!” he called, his arms spread wide. “What’s going on?”

“He’s gone east on 7th,” the teacher yelled. He whipped left and right searching for something, anything that would help, a bolt of lightning, a rodeo lasso.

Jones turned to Herbert, the man he knew, to ask what was happening, but Xi was bent over the gutter heaving what looked to be a stream of maraschino cherries and lime rinds into the more drab refuse already sheltered there. Xi waved the attention away and handed the box of chicken to Mason, who’d come running out of the shop with a string of men.

“Uh, no thank you,” Mason said while Xi wiped his chin.

“He’s getting away.” It was the Spanish teacher, pained and fighting to hold onto hope.

The knot of men on the sidewalk looked to Jones, waiting for him to make a move, say something, tell them what to do. “My car,” he said and ran into the street toward the opposite curb and the Impala parked there. The teacher ran after him. “Emilio,” he said pointing at his heart. In the short space of two slams they were tearing up Clay, making the left onto 7th through a yellow light. At the red light on Washington, Jones pressed his lips tight and put his foot against the gas pedal hoping not to be noticed by any of the dozen officers coming in or out of the main OPD station.

“Left on B’way,” Emilio directed from the shotgun seat.

Jones blasted the horn as a general declaration of righteousness and took a tire-smoking left onto Broadway.

“There,” Emilio pointed to a flash of green making a right onto 9th. “Chinatown.”

The light changed and the crosswalk filled with old women pushing wire shopping baskets, their short dark hair peeking from under broad-brimmed hats, the cuffs of their cloth jackets rolled above the wrist, loose cotton pants flapping above black slippers. Young women with babies on their hips or strapped to their chests pulled empty red wagons they would load at market. Scattered among them all, men in gray slacks and tan cardigans, white shirts buttoned at the neck, brown spotted hands clasped behind bent backs tottered along. Emilio grabbed the dash just above the glove box and leaned forward in his seat as Jones inched the Impala through the intersection and into Chinatown on a Friday.

Cars at the curb were hemmed in by big, double-parked delivery trucks. Men in white aprons, an inch of cigarette in the corners of their mouths, rode rear lifts heaped with bins of fish packed in ice, melons still crusted with the dirt of the field, dark green okra, long and ridged, spiky durian, mangos, peanuts, and a hundred other things. On the ground, men in paper garrison caps wheeled red dollies back and forth, barking into their phones, taking orders, giving orders, shouting to the men on the lifts, everything rushed and slow at the same time. All of it choked the four-lane, one-way street down to one hotly contested center lane.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Local cried. He grabbed his cell phone and flicked it open. “The fuck’s redial?” he complained, punching around the little buttons with his big shaky thumb. Emilio jumped from the passenger side and ran into the crowd. The irate honking of horns and shouts in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Korean needed no translation: Move your damned car. Local ripped the key from the ignition and burst from the driver’s side into the street. From somewhere around his waist he heard the smallest voice in the world shouting his name and realized he still held the mobile. “Running east on 9th between B’way and Webster, maybe Harrison,” he managed to gasp into the phone before a wave of nausea overtook him and he wheezed to a stop. He could no longer see Emilio.

 

They crept down 9th against traffic each watching the sidewalks. Boscana hit a few staccato bursts from the siren; Avilla used the PA to shout in Mandarin, “Clear the street, move it!” His accent so thick people stopped and stared. About hundred yards in, Boscana threw the car into park and both doors swung wide to the street. Avilla put his hand on his taser.

“Put it away,” Boscana shouted.

A crowd had formed and Boscana had to force his way through, shouting and shoving people aside. Emilio had a young man, coppery hair in a short Afro, by a wad of shirt in each fist. The kid, maybe sixteen, thrashed in broad hard movements to get free. The green bike lay at their feet as they scuffled. Emilio was hit in the upper lip and nose with a hard right. Stunned, he fell back, getting his feet caught up in the scarred and scraped bike frame. About to go down, he helicoptered his arms for balance. Avilla reached out and caught him. Freed, the youth tried to run but another pair of arms emerged from the crowd to encircle him.

Local Jones had him from behind. He’d gotten his arms around the boy’s chest and held on, pulling tight and squeezing the air from his lungs, stifling him. A grimace like the trace of a smile vanished from Jones’s mouth when Boscana cuffed the suspect. Avilla let go of Emilio.

“You okay?” Boscana said to Jones, who was breathing hard and shaking. “You want me to call for an EMT?”

“I’m good,” Jones said, bending low, hands on his knees to get his breath back. Then he shot up straight. “Shit! My car’s back in the street just hangin’ open.”

 

“Thank you,” Emilio said as Jones helped him lift his bike out of the Impala.

“New?” Local hardly needed to ask.

“One day!” Emilio said.

“I’m sorry about that,” Local said and meant it.

They stood on the sidewalk in front of Jones & Sons. There was nothing more to be done. “I should check on Herbert,” Emilio said. “He isn’t feeling well.”

“Yeah. Our Herbie need to find a good man.” Local offered his hand to Emilio. “Okay then,” he said.

“Are you alright?” Emilio asked folding both his hands around Local’s one. “You’re trembling.”

Local felt his wife so keenly he could’ve sworn the dead woman stood next to him. “I haven’t wanted to go to the doctor,” he said. He held onto Emilio. “Afraid what he might could say.”

“Do you need someone to go with you?”

“No,” Jones shot back. Then, looking at the sidewalk added, “Maybe.”

“Okay then,” Emilio said and pressed Local’s hands before releasing them.

 

Boscana tossed his duffel bag across the console of a vintage Mustang and dropped behind the wheel. He thought of Noël, dissatisfied and alone. But there was no going back. He’d been clear. “My body, my journey.” This wasn’t happening to her, so at home in her skin. She couldn’t know how he felt; she could only want to understand, never getting there, growing frustrated.

Their loft was sandwiched between 880 and Oakland’s industrial waterfront in an isolated spot where boom cranes offloaded cargo and the Southern Pacific Railroad ended its westward run. He loved the estuary; something always in motion as confirmed by a line of sails in silhouette like a row of black teeth against the orange horizon. Perhaps Noël would like something else, though. He resolved to ask her, then toggled the alarm and left the Mustang under a streetlight.

Noël’s dog habit had him trained to be cautious coming home. He pushed the door open just a crack and called, “I’m home.” Nothing. Police instincts are hard to shut off. He slipped into the loft. Its 15-foot ceiling and wall of towering windows allowed enough light to see in shades of gray but not color. Starting near the door, he scanned the kitchen, and then moved into the living area, looking for anything out of place or unusual. And there, at the back, in an area defined by a ring of pull curtains suspended from the ceiling, on the dresser by their neatly made bed, was an envelope bearing his birth name. Inside a note:

“Dearest Jasmine, my love. I know we started this together . . .” He dropped the letter to his side still holding it between his thumb and curled forefinger. It didn’t require police training to guess how this was going to end.

Goodie Jackson. The dog catcher. He almost laughed. He dropped the letter in the junk drawer, that one in every kitchen that holds the things that don’t belong anywhere in particular, and, not knowing what else to do, poured a drink. He stood at the floor-to-ceiling windows and watched the water. The Coast Starlight, lights blazing in the blue-black evening, blared past on the tracks below, close enough to jump on. “I love women,” her note said. If she walked through the door now, she’d see him as nothing more than a shape, a figure in shadow unidentifiable as male or female, young or old. The drink was gone. He felt nothing.

In the bathroom, he slipped off his uniform. He ran his fingers along the pale, half-moon scars where Jasmine’s breasts had been removed. The shower was empty. Noël had taken all her creams and rinses; all the many things a woman needs.

 

White polygons undulated across the dark ceiling, thrown there by the sodium vapor lights of the port. A slow-moving freight train labored through the night; the percussion of its wheels on uneven track as dull and rhythmic as a pulse. The sound receded to nothing. Boscana rolled onto his side and watched a ghostly crane unload cargo from China. Every three weeks the same freighter offloaded containers from Guangzhou then restocked with U.S. goods. In three weeks, it would do the mirror opposite on the far side of the Pacific. Back and forth; first one way, then the other.


About the Author: Rebecca Chekouras has appeared on the Tin House blog, in Narrative Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, Curve Magazine, and the online zine Pure Slush. Her work has been anthologized by The University of Wisconsin Press and Pure Slush books. She is a 2013 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow and was short listed for the Astraea Foundation Lesbian Writers Fund fiction prize. In 2014, Chekouras helped launch The Basement Series in San Francisco with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She was invited to the Tin House Writer’s Winter Workshop in 2015. She lives in the Port of Oakland.

Artwork: Michael J.