Carlos found a pistol in the back of his abuela’s closet. It was very old and very rusty. As he carefully picked it up, turning it over in his hands, he wondered why in the world she would have an antique pistol hidden in her vast Imelda Marcos collection of shoes.
“That’s mine,” came a voice from outside the door. Carlos dropped the pistol like a hot burning coal, and bolted out of the closet, running straight into a solid brick house of a man.
“Oye, careful there, chico.” Carlos looked up at this man standing in the middle of the hallway. His eyes were dark and piercing, and his skin was like polished mahogany burnished by a lifetime of exposure to the sun. His most outstanding feature, however, was a large black mustache stretching well beyond the confines of his upper lip. He did not smile. It seemed to Carlos as if this man had never smiled a day in his life.
“Sorry,” Carlos squeaked.
“Sorry?” The man asked, his eyes widening. “What could you possibly be sorry for?”
“Running into you,” Carlos said. “Playing with your gun.”
“Sorry is for niños,” the man said sternly. “You’re too old for that nonsense. It’s a bad habit to get into, to apologize for every little this and that.”
Carlos relaxed enough to take in more details of the man standing before him. He wore the simple white clothing of a Mexican campesino — Carlos recognized it from his history books — and two bandoleras of bullets criss-crossing his chest.
“Do you know who I am?” the man asked, seeing Carlos staring at his bullets.
“You’re a Mexicano. You better know me, mijo.”
“I was born in Palmdale.”
“You’re abuelita is from Morelos, is she not?”
“I don’t know. I think so. Somewhere in Mexico.”
“That makes you a Mexicano, chico, whether you like it or not. There’s not an ounce of gringo in you, gracias a dios. In your heart, in your soul, you are part of la gente, la raza, and that’s all that counts, entiendas?”
“If you say so.” Carlos didn’t want to argue with him. He just wanted to get the hell out of there. He’d only come into the closet to look for money, not trouble, not from this guy, not from some crazy borracho who wandered in from the street.
“So, I ask you again, do you know who I am?”
“I don’t,” Carlos said. “And I really need to go now.” He started off, but the man grabbed him by the shoulder and wouldn’t let him go.
“Some call me El Tigre, some El Caudillo. Those that know better call me El Jefe.”
“Wait,” said Carlos, recognizing those handles, “you’re saying you’re Zapata? The revolutionary guy?”
“Claro que sí. Emiliano Zapata,” the man said, nodding. “But you can call me General.”
“Mom!” Carlos yelled down the stairs.
“Come on, now. You know she’s got the late shift tonight. That’s why you were going to sneak out with Beto and the gang, verdad? That’s why you were looking to steal some cash from your poor old abuelita, sí?”
“I mean yes, but it wasn’t like that. My grandma, she doesn’t care if I borrow money, so long as I pay her back.”
“Should we go wake her up and find out how she feels about it?” the man calling himself Zapata asked, indicating the bedroom down the hallway.
“What are you busting my balls for, hombre?” Carlos was a little freaked, but also pissed. He had places to go.
“General, please. Or Jefe. Either will do.”
“Are you for real? General.”
“As real as you, Carlitos.”
Man, thought Carlos, of all the days to go insane, I had to pick today. Beto had lined up some primo mota, and some fine chicas to go with it. Carlos only needed fifty bucks to join in the fun and all he had was forty, which is why he was looking for cash in the closet. He knew his grandma always hid things in her shoes. Ten dollars? Ten lousy dollars? Come on, she’s not going to mind him borrowing ten lousy dollars, right? Little Carlitos, the straight A student? Going to college? To UCLA? First in the family? Getting out of Pacoima so he doesn’t have to live in this old broken down house on a street shared by junkies and winos, and his mom doesn’t have to work two jobs, sometimes three, and maybe he doesn’t have to worry about getting jumped on his way home from school? At seventeen, he was more than ready to move on to another life. The pressure, the stress, it all just sucked big, fat huevos. Everyone looking at him, latching all their expectations on him; so what if he let out some steam every once and a while? So what if he got a little stoned, got to put his hands all over some mamacita from cross town? Who in the hell was going to crack his nut for it, much less care?
“Are you done? Thinking up a storm inside that tiny little pendejo head of yours?”
“You’re freaking me out, you know.”
“I hope to hell I am.”
“Look, General. I think I get it. You’re like my conscience or something, yes? I appreciate you taking the time to come from the afterlife and all that, but really, I’m good. I’ve got a handle on it, you know? So, maybe, you should concentrate your energy on someone who really could use some help. A lot of hermanos are getting kicked out of the country by la migra, so maybe them? Maybe you could, like, haunt them.”
El Jefe let out a big sigh, then nodded. “If that’s how you want to play it, chico. Just get me my pistola, and we’ll call it even.”
Now it was Carlos’s turn to sigh. With relief. “No problem.” He practically jumped back into the closet, and went for the gun where he’d dropped it. Only it wasn’t there. He scrambled through his abuela’s mountain of shoes but nothing. It was gone. Damn.
Carlos came out, his eyes downcast, looking all sheepish. “I’m really sorry, General, but I couldn’t find it.”
Carlos looked up and to his surprise and delight, Zapata was nowhere to be found. Disappeared. Gone. “Awesome!” he yelled as he bounded down the stairs, taking them two at a time, swinging into the kitchen, grabbing his dark glasses off the counter, and slipping them on. He was going to be late, and he’d just have to tell Beto, “sorry dude, you’ll have to spot me a ten,” but that was cool, that was okay, because his carnal would say “all good, ese,” and then they’d light up and all would be mellow and tight.
All this talk about being Mexican and shit, where was that coming from anyway? Carlos thought of himself as American as a McDonald’s Big Mac. He barely spoke Spanish, for chrissakes! Okay, he wasn’t some milky-white bolillo, but he wasn’t no cholo either. Damn, the mind can play some messed up tricks if you let it. He jammed out the back door, locked it, and practically jumped off the back porch, only to bang into El Jefe himself, leaning against the wall, polishing the pistola Carlos thought had vanished.
“You know, I once pointed this bad boy right in the face of a pinche patron who’s name shall not be spoken. I said, ‘you either sign your name to this document, cabron, or you’ll find yourself on the other side, and I don’t mean los estados unidos.'” Zapata smiled at the memory. “He signed. Pissing in his pants. Ay madre, what a glorious day that was.”
“What do you want from me?” Carlos pleaded.
“Let’s walk a little, what do say?” El Jefe said, putting his arm affectionately around Carlos’s shoulder. “Beto can wait.” Carlos wanted to protest, but General Zapata held him tightly. There was no escape. So, they turned into the street and started walking.
“You know the sacrifices that have been made for you?”
“Sure I do,” Carlos said, hoping to humor the ghost. “My mom’s the best. Been working herself to the bone after my dad got deported. I get all that.”
“She’s been working for your dream, verdad?”
“Yeah,” Carlos sighed. “I know.” And he did. His mom came home most nights tired as all hell, and still she managed to get his abuela washed and ready for bed. And she’d get up extra early to make Carlos breakfast. Making sure he had time to study. Making sure he had plenty of sleep for school.
“Do you have an idea what would happen to her if anything happened to you? Happened to your dream?”
“Nothing’s going to–”
“Listen to me, mijo. You have a responsibility to her and everyone that’s gotten you to where you are, understand?”
“What about me,” Carlos blurted out defensively. “Haven’t I worked hard too?”
“Tienes razon. You have. So why do you want to throw it all away?” And there it was: The big question. The one Carlos didn’t want to think about, didn’t want to face.
“Don’t I have the right to chill once and a while?” Carlos asked.
“No, you don’t.”
“Damn, I’m seventeen. I’m just a kid.”
“And I was a simple horse trader, who liked to get drunk and talk loudly about things I knew nothing about. I would have been a happy man, living in a casita having children running around, some even calling me papá. But fate came calling. It demanded I take action. History insisted I do something for my people. Do you think I asked for this?” Zapata stood in front of Carlos, the streetlamp pooling amber light around them. In a sudden and startling move, El Jefe pushed aside his bandoleros, and ripped open his shirt, revealing his naked chest, riddled with bullet holes, still fresh, still bleeding. Carlos stared, transfixed on Zapata’s wounds.
“There are sacrifices you make not because you want to, but because you have to,” El Jefe said coming up close to Carlos’s face. So close, Carlos could smell the wax on the revolutionary’s huge mustache. “It’s not just you, mijo, it’s everyone you’re connected to, understand?” His eyes bore into Carlos’s eyes. A solitary tear ran down Zapata’s right cheek. Or was it blood? And was this the face of El Jefe? or the face of his mother, his father, his abuelos, the whole of his people, his ancestors, himself? “We’re all depending on you,” Zapata said gently. “All of us.” Carlos stood staring at Zapata for what seemed a lifetime. There was no street, there was no sound, there was only the two of them.
“Carlitos! Carlitos! Shit! Jesus!” A distant voice shattered the silence. Carlos looked up and saw his carnal, Chuey, running faster than he’d ever seen that gordito run, huffing and puffing right up to him.
“Que onda, güey?” Carlos said, more than a little irritated.
“It’s Beto, dude. He got pinched by la tira.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He was in the alley, like he always is, right? Hanging with his crew, right? Two cops come out of nowhere and grab him, throw him up against the wall, start frisking and, dude, he’s carrying some big-time shit.”
“Just some weed is all,” Carlos corrected. Beto didn’t carry big-time shit.
“No, ese. He was like a walking pharmacy, dude,” Chuey said, shaking his head. “We all bugged out of there, but they still got a bunch of us. I managed to get away, don’t know how. But those other cabrones? They are royally fucked, dude.”
“Yeah,” said Carlos. “I guess they are.” He turned to General Zapata, wide-eyed with understanding. The news was not lost on him. El Jefe gave him a thin, satisfied smile along with a wink then vanished.
“What are we gonna do?” Chuey asked, rocking back and forth like he had to pee, but more likely the hermano was just stoned up.
“Me? Nothing,” Carlos replied, taking his dark glasses off and putting them in his shirt pocket. “I’ve got studying to do.”