Progress Park
by Orlando

I suppose it all began when I was eleven years old ... during the summer I spent at the home of my aunt and uncle in Paramount, California.

It was a scorching summer afternoon, and I had moved out onto the front porch for a breath of air. Sitting on the steps, I began plotting out the strategy for my team’s next game. Our neighborhood’s baseball team had beaten every opponent, even the legitimate little league teams, in three counties ... and we didn’t even have an adult coach! I was the guy who devised the tactics that won most of our games, and I was slowly becoming a local legend at eleven years of age.

Today, however, I was distracted from what I was doing because of the twelve-year-old kid who was mowing the grass around my aunt and uncle’s house.

He was cad in an old pair of cut-off jeans and nothing else. He was bare-footed, golden tan and silky-skinned. His slender, boyish body was already hinting at later power in the breadth of the young square shoulders, the well-developed calf and thigh muscles, the flat belly and narrow hips. His black hair was the color of raven wings, his eyes through absurdly thick black lashes were smoky-brown. He looked like a Latin angel.

I was distracted because of the kid.

”Hi,” said the boy smiling.

”Hello,” I replied, finding it impossible to resist that infectious smile. ”Who are you?”

”I’m Sergio Vasquez,” answered the boy, his dark finely etched brows knitted firmly. ”Who are you?”

”Tyrell Johnson.” I replied. I was surprised that the kid spoke English. Most of the newly arrived Latinos in the area were fresh from south of the border. ”This is my Aunt and Uncle’s house.”

Many of these illegal immigrants were moving into our section of town which was predominantly comprised of African-Americans. There wasn’t as much friction between these immigrants and our community though. My uncle, who is a member of the town council, was even the guy who pushed the measure to make sure that all kids in the neighborhoods were immunized regardless of whether or not their citizenship was legal.

”Well, Mr. Johnson hired me this morning.” said Sergio Vasquez. He really was Uncle Amos’ gardener, then. My father’s older brother hadn’t hired a real yard crew like he had intended yesterday. Instead he had chosen a clearly needy kid who MIGHT have passed him off as a very young professional ... had he been wearing shoes. Was this kid so reckless that he’d mow the grass in his bare feet?

That’s exactly what he did! And I was so afraid that the kid was going to lose some toes in the blades of the mower, that I stopped watching him and made my way back into the house. There I could finish planning my team’s strategy without being distracted by ... by what? The sound of the mower Sergio Vasquez was using? Loud noise never bothers me ... I could do long division in a thunderstorm. No, I’d be distracted by the heat. Yeah, that was it.

It really was hot out there. It was so hot out that, during the short time I sat on that SHADED porch, I had to reach up and wipe the sweat from my eyes four or five times. Once I was back in the house I put the various ingredients necessary for making a salami sandwich on the kitchen counter. I saw that Aunt Etta, who had left earlier to visit an old High School friend, had made a pitcher of ice tea and had sat it on the window sill over the sink.

By the time I had finished making my sandwich and completing my team’s strategy, I noticed that the heat outside had gotten worse ... had seemed burn away even the shadows. I left out through the back door, deciding to traverse to Progress Park to take a quick swim in the park’s public pool. Pulling off my T-shirt, I trekked outside and made my way around the side of the house.

What I soon stumbled upon was kind of interesting.

Sergio Vasquez, the boy my uncle had hired to do the gardening, was standing near the open kitchen window outside of the house. Apparently he had been positioned there for some time, glancing around nervously and shifting his weight from one bare foot to the other. Eventually he reached out both of his nimble hands and, with stealthy ease, removed the glass pitcher of ice tea that my aunt had placed there on the sill earlier that morning. After taking a few healthy gulps, he looked around furtively to see if he had been spotted.

His smoky-brown eyes grew huge when he noticed me watching him. Realizing that he had been caught, he put on a big smile and held the pitcher of ice-tea out to me.

I wanted to get mad ... wanted to even fight this thieving kid. But I wasn’t mad, even though the thought of some stranger drinking from your ice tea pitcher was pretty nasty. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t mad. And I REALLY didn’t understand why Sergio Vasquez’s smile made my heart race.

I was really confused then ... so confused that I turned and left in a hurry. I would have ran towards the house, but I didn’t want Sergio to think I was running to tell my Uncle on him. So I ran in the direction of Progress Park across the way. And I sat in that park and tried to work out why my body was tingling all over. I decided then and there that I was going to forget all about how I felt ... I don’t know exactly WHY I knew it was important to forget, I just knew that suppressing my feelings would be in my best interest.

After sitting in the park for a while I made my way back home. I had gotten within thirty feet of the house when it happened ....

I heard the kid call my name ... and for a moment I stood motionless, quite terrified. Then I made my feet go in the direction of the voice. A part of me didn’t want to confront Sergio and the new feelings that were making my stomach churn with confusion. But another part of me just had to get another look at that beautiful kid.

There he was! Over there by my aunt’s flower-bed, kneeling above it and tugging at some weeds. I trudged over to him, my mind reeling. But Sergio wasn’t smiling now ... in fact he looked as scared as I FELT right then.

”You’re not gonna tell your aunt or uncle about me drinkin’ the-”

"You're not gonna tell..."

”No, I’m not going to tell. I know how hot it is out here,” I said quickly.

”Thank you,” said Sergio, getting to his feet with a supple grace that I admired even at eleven. ”I really need this job ...”

He went on to tell me about how his mother and brother were on the other side of the border in Mexico. He and his family had attempted to pay an American to transport them across the border illegally, but it seems that this person demanded payment up front, so a compromise was reached. This venal American transported Sergio across and, after the Latino twelve-year-old made enough money to pay the full conveyance fee, he would return and do the same for the kid’s mother and young brother.

He told me that he and his family were from an obscure region in Ocampo Mexico and had no family here in the States that he knew of.

"Who are you staying with?"”So who are you staying with while you’re here?” I asked.

While he was telling me about how he slept in abandoned buildings, my Aunt pulled up in the driveway and ordered Sergio back to work. Understand that my Aunt Etta wasn’t as nice as my Uncle Amos. In fact, she was pretty mean.

”I don’t know why Amos hired you!” she proclaimed angrily. ”Every time I see you, you’ve stopped working!”

”I do not always be to stopping,” protested Sergio, using broken English and a heavier accent that I hadn’t heard before.

”I do not always to be stopping,” mocked my aunt. ”If you’re going to stay in this country, at least learn to speak proper English!”

Sergio stared at her blankly.

I realized that the kid was pretending to be more ignorant than he really was around my aunt. And I understood this. My grandfather had once told me that, deep in the American South when he was growing up, a black man learned the most secrets and useful information when he pretended to be less intelligent than he was. If the bosses thought you were half-witted, they were never on guard around you.

But Sergio had revealed his full intelligence to me. Why had he done that? The only answer I could think of was a stupid one: Sergio trusted me. He knew that he didn’t have to pretend around me because he already knew that I wouldn’t do anything that would get him in trouble.

”Well, are you going to get back to work or not?” Aunt Etta asked the kid.

”I have to be taking a pee,” Sergio said, legs clenched together, face scrunched.

Aunt Etta appealed to the heavens, and then looked down at the kid and said, ”Oh, go on then!”

Sergio immediately took off, hands on his crotch while he ran.

”I sure hope that boy remembers to lower the toilet lid and wash his hands when he’s finished.” My aunt told me in an exasperated tone.

I was barely listening to her. I glanced up at the fiercely hot sun, then quickly looked away. I had to keep my eyes closed against the glare. If it weren’t for the fact that I was black, I’m sure I would have gotten a vicious sunburn out there after only a short while.

While I wiped the sweat from my face, Sergio Vasquez returned, trudging tiredly beneath the weight of the oppressive heat. I watched him as he advanced in the sun and torridity. The kid seemed to be enveloped in flames. He had been gone only a minute.

”I thought you were going to take a pee,” My aunt said in an rankled tone, her hands on her hips.

”I did,” The twelve-year-old Latino replied, pointing to the elm tree located at the far end of the lawn. ”Right over there.”

My Aunt put on a distasteful scowl and ordered Sergio to turn over the dirt in the flower-beds ... and ordered me to return to the house and clean the guest bedroom that I was occupying for the summer. So I did just that, but took time out from my task to glance out the window at the twelve-year-old Latino.

It was clear that the sweat-layered Sergio was sorely afflicted by the weather, for the heat had already sapped his strength, and now he had been ordered to cultivate the dirt in the flower-beds. The intensity of the heat seemed to double and I saw how the kid was beset with fatigue. He panted and tiredly stubbed the bare with his equally bare toes, and secretly made impertinent faces at Aunt Etta when she and Uncle Amos left for the mall.

And while glancing out the window of my bedroom about ten minutes later, I saw Sergio collapse. I had a clear momentary view of the kid’s smoky-brown eyes as he fell. They were wide and all white ... the pupils gone up beneath the lids. Then he crumpled to the ground like a puppet with it’s strings cut.

I immediately dashed out of the house, intent on aiding him. I made it to the backyard, and then simply stood there staring down at the unconscious, sweat-washed bundle that was Sergio Vasquez. I studied his face for any sign of consciousness returning. There was none.

I dropped down into the grass and, panic stricken, grabbed the passed-out kid under his arms and began pulling him across the backyard toward the distant back door of the house. This was harder than you might imagine. Even though Sergio was roughly my size, his deadweight seemed twice as heavy. I was gasping for breath and sweating in the heat by the time I got him to the back porch.

Once I got him through the back door, I realized that it might be easier to drag him by his feet. So I seized Sergio’s sleek ankles and tugged him all the way to my bedroom. It was a good thing my guest room was on the first floor. I still don’t know how I managed to finally get his completely limp body onto the bed, but I did. Then I studied his face for any sign of consciousness returning. I checked his pulse for no reason beyond the fact that this seemed the thing to do.

I undid the belt on Sergio’s jeans, then slid the zipper down. Then inch by inch, I worked the fabric over his hips, thighs and along his legs. The twelve-year-old moaned and moved his sweaty head on my pillow, but he didn’t open his eyes. Eventually I got him down to just his tattered briefs. His golden-tan skin was dripping with sweat, his developing preadolescent body was gleaming.

I didn’t know what to do next. Aunt Etta and Uncle Amos were at the mall. I thought about running to one of the neighbors for help ... but I quickly put this notion out of my head. If I told a neighbor, they’d want to call an ambulance or take Sergio to the emergency room themselves. And once Sergio was checked out at a hospital, his illegal alien status would be discovered, and the kid would be sent back across the border.

But what else could I do?

I decided to just act on instinct. So I ran to the bathroom and filled a bowl up with water. Then I returned to the bedroom with the bowl and a washcloth. I sponged Sergio from head to toes, hoping that I was doing the right thing. The twelve-year-old moved his head restlessly on the pillow several times, then would settle back into a heavy sleep.

When he seemed to settle down, I began to wonder if bathing the kid had really helped him or if it was just wishful thinking on my part.

In the sunlight streaming through the window, the even rise and fall of Sergio’s smooth chest was clearly seen. In sleep the kid looked even younger than twelve, his tousled raven-black fell even more carelessly over his sweaty forehead. His mouth was vulnerable, and his slumbering face had a beseeching look ... like a really little kid who’d lost his way. I sat on the side of the bed and waited for my uncle or aunt to get home. They’d know what to do.

I only hoped that what they did would be the right thing.

***

There was a silence in the room when my aunt and uncle returned home ... a prolonged silence inside the bedroom where Sergio lay sleeping, with Uncle Amos staring down pityingly at the unconscious twelve-year-old, and Aunt Etta standing near the closet, her arms folded and her face twisted into an aggravated scowl. I had told them about how Sergio had been living in the long-abandoned Jerry’s Barbecue building on Long Beach Boulevard because he had no relatives on our side of the border to reside with. This was hard for my aunt and uncle to believe, but they knew I wasn’t a liar. Still, what were they going to decide to do with this sick Latino twelve-year-old? I waited for the verdict.

And finally the answer came ... an answer that brought a smile to my face and allowed me to release the breath I had been holding: they wouldn’t turn Sergio over to a hospital or the authorities. They’d nurse him back to health and allow him to reside with us until he was back on his feet again.

I was glad, relieved and very amazed.

It’s only when someone in truly desperate circumstances crosses their path that I realize the lengths my aunt and uncle will go to protect and befriend someone ... even a stranger. For the first time I realized how a nice affable guy like my uncle could have married my often stern, unsmiling Aunt Etta. And I saw that my aunt ... despite the fact that she had never shown any previous fondness (or even tolerance) for strangers or illegal Latinos ... wasn’t so mean that she could bear the thought of some sick kid sleeping in an abandoned building ... all alone ... a pitiful huddle of preadolescent limbs. She had a heart after all.

Sergio awoke for a brief moment while Uncle Amos was tucking him in. The twelve year old sat up in bed with shock and confusion etched into his young face. With gentle hands my uncle forced him to lay back down. The kid tried to speak, but was too befuddled. Such tenderness from strangers was clearly new to him. He obediently laid back down and was asleep before Uncle Amos was finished drawing the blankets up more snugly over his young shoulders.

By the time Aunt Etta and Uncle Amos finished planning out what they were going to do with the kid, it was almost time for me to go to bed.

Sergio and I would have to share the space on the queen-sized mattress ... luckily it was more than big enough for the two of us. When I had changed into my pajamas, I returned to bed where the twelve year old lay sprawled in sleep and drew down the sheet.

My heart practically stopped.

Suddenly the reason why Sergio had confused me came rushing back. I had been so concerned for the kid’s well-being before that I had put the confused feelings that had consumed me before out of my mind. Now here they were again.

Last time I had been bewildered by the kid’s face, but this time it was his body. He was clad only in a pair of tattered briefs, and his sleek boyish chest was revealed. I moved closer to him and scanned his sleek arms, his strong hands, polished legs and beautiful feet. For a kid who always walked about barefoot he sure had tender-looking soles and well-cared for, nicely-shaped toes. In fact it was only the wideness of his feet that betrayed the fact that Sergio didn’t care for wearing shoes.

I climbed into bed and lay beside him. I inhaled Sergio’s preadolescent musky odor ... the acrid smell of fresh boy-sweat on his inert body. I rolled over and suddenly Sergio’s sleeping face was looming just two inches from my eyes; he was still out cold but I felt a thrill of pleasure rush through me.

Suddenly his sleeping face was just two inches from my eyes.

I had never been so intimately close to a boy ... or ANYONE for that matter. Certainly not anyone as beautiful as this. I couldn’t help myself. I leaned forward and gently kissed the sleeping kid’s forehead. Then I kissed the tip of his nose. Then I tenderly kissed each of his closed eyelids. I knew I was losing control. So I turned myself completely upside down in the bed, so that my head was where Sergio’s feet were.

This didn’t help.

I pulled up the covers and once again became aware that even the kid’s feet were beautiful. His well-shaped toes, his smooth soles and heels ... all perfect! I brought myself close to his feet and even tenderly kissed each of his toes. Then all over his soles. I stopped myself and reversed my position on the bed again so that the slumbering twelve-year-old Latino and I were both lying in the same direction. I gently stroked his raven-black hair until I began to get drowsy. Then I snuggled up close to him.

I fell asleep breathing in the sweet fragrance of Sergio’s raven-black hair, mingling with the green scent of the grass he had mowed earlier ... the freshly cut grass I had dragged his unconscious body across.

***

In the morning, I lay flat on my back staring at the ceiling. My mind was numb with shock ... because Sergio, still asleep, had unconsciously nestled into the crook of my left arm, his legs thrown over mine.

I managed to untangle myself from the kid and slid out of bed. I still didn’t understand why I was feeling the way that I was ... and I didn’t particularly care to understand. All I knew was that, in addition to making me feel confused, Sergio Vasquez made me feel good.

I looked down at the Latino twelve-year-old. He was still sound asleep, his black hair a small mass against the pillow, his long lashes closed in innocent slumber, his bare foot poking out from the covers. I reached out and tickled his sole, watching his foot waggle like a puppy’s tail for a little while. I tickled his sweet toes until he woke up with a start, threw back the covers and bounded out of bed.

”Wha ... where am I?” Sergio exclaimed. He glanced down at himself and realized that he was currently dressed in only his tattered underwear. Then, very suddenly, his golden-tan face turned red and his hands began working spasmodically. ”I ... Tyrell? How’d I get ... ” Then, as abruptly as his face had turned red, it drained of color and became an ashen gray. I moved to his side when he began to sway dizzily on his feet.

After helping Sergio to sit on the bed, I explained everything that had happened to him. And how Uncle Amos and Aunt Etta agreed to let him stay with us.

”I can stay here?” The kid seemed completely bewildered. ”But your aunt and uncle don’t even know me.”

Don’t ask me why, but I was extremely flattered that he didn’t include me as one of the people who didn’t know him. ”That doesn’t matter, you don’t know them either ... so we’re even. Besides we Johnsons warm up to folks fast.”

Sergio looked down at himself, and made a confused expression ... as if he was embarrassed. Not because he was dressed in just his underwear, but because he realized he was still a bit dirty, despite the fact that I had bathed him to a degree not long after he had first passed out. Sleeping in abandoned buildings had a way of really begriming a kid, you see.

”Hey, you want the first turn in the shower?” I asked him, ”You’ll get most of the hot water if you go first.”

Sergio stared at me blankly, and this time I could tell that he wasn’t acting. He truly was confused. So I led him into the bathroom and showed him the shower and how it worked.
He grinned and seemed absolutely charmed by this device that I have always taken for granted.

Then, without the slightest bit of self-consciousness, he pulled down his underwear and stepped into the shower. I gasped and sort of reeled with shock upon seeing Sergio naked. He didn’t seem to care at all that I was seeing him naked either! I guess where he comes from he was used to stripping publicly ... in front of family and friends and so on.

So I tried to pretend like I wasn’t seeing him in all his smooth-skinned glory as I gave him some soap and a towel. Still, I grew dizzy as I watched the kid make awkward attempts at soaping himself up. And he didn’t even close the shower door ... he merely stood under the spray making uncoordinated attempts and cleansing himself and splashing water everywhere. He even splashed water on me ... sometimes on purpose, laughing and grinning at me as he did so.

But when Sergio began to sway and almost lost his balance, I was glad he’d left the shower door open. It was clear that he was still weak and hadn’t fully recovered from the heat-induced malady that had struck him down yesterday. So I decided that if he was going to shower, I’d have to help him and keep him from slipping and cracking his head open.

"I better h- h- ..." - I really began to stutter - "help you." So, with shaking hands, I took off my pajamas.

Sergio looked at me and although it was quite warm I got a gooseskin.

Though my mind was whirling I prepared to climb into the shower. Sergio didn't seem to notice, he just enjoyed the warm water while my heart raced at a hundred miles an hour!

But racing heart or not, I gathered all my courage. I climbed under the spray with Sergio and closed the shower door.

***

After Sergio and I got out of the water of the shower, we got INTO the water of Progress Park’s public swimming pool a half hour later. We fell into the water, and laughed foolishly together, and tossed a football back and forth, and had diving contests--splashing water like two sibling toddlers in a tub.

Eventually Sergio and I, sitting with our legs dangling into the pool, began discussing what to do about making enough money to get the mysterious ”American” to transport his mother and little brother across the border. We were joined by my good friend Damon Davis, a dreadlocked eleven-year-old who lived up the street from me. Both he and I, as it happened, had relatives who were members of the street-gang called the Hoover Street Crips, and we were considering the possibility of asking nineteen year-old G-Dog ... a ”gangsta” Crip of high status ... to lend Sergio the money with full assurances that the twelve-year-old Latino would repay with interest.

”He would lend money to me, even though I am Mexican and have no ties to the Crips gang?” Sergio asked.

Damon shrugged as he leaped back into the pool and waded towards the deep end, ”Couldn’t hurt to ask.”

I disagreed. It COULD hurt to ask. G-Dog was courteous to me and Damon, because we each had a relative who was a member of his thuggish pack. But I wasn’t sure how he would regard a Latino stranger like Sergio ... or what he might do to him. Both me and the kid decided that asking money from the gang-leader would be our last course of action.

***

The next day Sergio joined our neighborhood baseball team ... four minutes before the game!

It was our ragtag Paramount team against the organized suburbanite little leaguers from Lakewood. And we stomped ‘em! At the end of our second nine-inning game, our team had won 19-8 and 20-6. Then we started a third game. Sergio, who served as both catcher and pitcher at various times, moved all over the field like a wild man, summer’s dust rolling around his bare feet.
Yeah, he actually played barefoot! I stopped arguing with him about it when I saw that he played better without shoes. During the third inning of the first game, I had convinced him to wear the sneakers of Jamaal Richardson--who was leaving the game because his asthma was acting up. And during that inning, the then sneaker-footed Sergio didn’t catch a single ball. Finally I realized that in shoes the Twelve-year-old Latino clumped along, but barefoot he moved like the wind.

We won the final game 17-4.

Once we arrived back home, Uncle Amos informed Sergio that he could earn a few bucks by washing his Lexus. Sergio agreed to do so, but I could tell the kid wasn’t up to it. He had gone overboard to impress my teammates during the baseball game, and was currently bone-tired. Still he wasn’t going to pass up the chance to make some money and bring his mother and brother that much closer to joining him on our side of the border, so he accepted the job. And I decided that, if the extremely exhausted twelve-year-old was going to undertake the task of washing the car, I was going to help him.

So after stripping down to our swim trunks, we collected some pails and loaded them with soap and polish and rags. Then we made our way over to the car, where we slopped around a lot of soapy water and got very crazy with hose. I pointed out spots on the car we’d missed. After a while we had a gleaming Lexus to show for our trouble.

Now that the job was done, Sergio and I needed to change out of our wet swim trunks. But instead of doing that, we went to my room and collapsed on our backs on the bed.

”I ache all over, Ty,” he told me tiredly.

”You need some Icy Hot?” I asked.

”What’s that?”

”It’s a pain relieving gel that relaxes stiff and sore muscles.” I said, leaping off the bed and retrieving a tube of the aforementioned product.

”Yeah ... I could use some of that.” he said, a mischievous glint in his smoky-brown eyes.

”Well ... I’d have to rub it on you for it to work.”

Sergio responded to this by smiling broadly and rolling over onto his stomach, ”I’m ready,”

”Okay ... where are you sore?”

”You see the back of my right knee?” the Latino twelve-year-old asked me.

”Yeah.” said I.

”That’s the only place that AIN’T sore right now.”

So while Sergio lay prone on the bed, I bestraddled his hips and squeezed the Icy Hot along his spine. Using slow, firm strokes, I spread the gel over his back, and with my palms I circled and kneaded the tight fibers from his waist to his young shoulders ... working on the bunched, still-developing muscles until they softened.

I moved to the bottom of the bed and started to massage his left foot, carefully starting with the big toe and kneading hard under the instep, then going all the way up to his leg with hard strokes. I stopped short of his groin and began rubbing his right foot.

Sergio uttered noisy sighs as my hands worked magic from his hips to his toes. It wasn’t long before his gel-slicked body was completely limp and acquiescent. When I realized he had fallen asleep, I stripped him of his wet swim trunks, redressed him in a pair of my pajamas and tucked him into the bed. My touch was gentle and adroit. Sergio did not awaken until the next morning.
And that morning, like the morning before, we greeted the new day in a sweaty knot of blankets and sleek limbs.

***

Later that morning Sergio decided that he would indeed make the attempt to ask gangleader G-Dog to lend him the money necessary to get his mother and brother over the boarder.

Sergio decided to ask the gangleader.

So we tentatively made our way down the street, eleven-year-old Black boy and twelve-tear-old Latino, and traversed into the cul-de-sac at the end of the avenue.

Finally we made it to the house. As Sergio and I sat on the brick wall which surrounded the backyard of the dwelling, I saw a rear lawn crowded with a couple of dozen teen gangsters, the majority dancing to the base-heavy hip-hop tunes blasting from a boom-box radio. But several of them, including G-Dog, were seated on lawn chairs taking swigs from forty-ounce bottles of malt-liquor.

Sergio and I leaped into the yard and made our way towards the gangleader. We were confronted by a couple of gangsters who wanted to know what we were doing there ... and if we were strapped (armed). I informed them that I was the first cousin of their fellow gangster who called himself Crazybone.

”I know who you are,” said one of the rough-looking guys who were confronting us. He motioned towards Sergio, ”But who’s this?”

”This is my homey (close friend), Sergio,” said I, ”He’s got something to ask G-Dog.”

Sergio nodded, nervously wiggling his bare toes in the grass.

The two gangsters looked him over. Then the taller one said, ”Get to steppin’!”

Sergio clearly didn’t understand what this meant. The gangster repeated, ”Get to steppin’!”

Sergio was frozen. Finally I grabbed his arm and said, ”That means ‘leave’. We’d better get out of here.”

And me and the kid were about to depart the backyard when we heard someone say, ”Hold up!”

Sergio and I turned and discovered that the person who had shouted was G-Dog himself. The gangleader motioned for Sergio to approach to where he was sitting on a lawn chair ... sitting like a king on a throne.

”Burrito boy here has some balls to come up in here,” said the seventeen year-old leader of the Hoover Street Crips. ”I wanna hear what he has to say,”

Sergio and I were both about to make our way towards G-Dog, but one of the gangsters stopped me and said, ”No, you wait outside of the house ... we want to have a private talk with your ‘homey’.”

I wanted to object. I didn’t want to leave Sergio alone there. But the Latino twelve-year-old nodded to me ... indicating that he was going to be all right. So I left the yard and waited for Sergio beneath the canopy-like branches of a willow on the other side of the brick wall.

From the opposite side of the wall I could hear arguing in the backyard, but I couldn’t SEE a thing. I could hear G-Dog’s loud, angry voice ... a voice seething with rage. Then I heard Sergio’s voice. It was as loud as G-Dog’s and filled with about as much anger. What were they arguing about?

‘Stop arguing, Sergio,’ I thought to himself. ‘ G-Dog is crazy ... he’s liable to snap at any moment.’

I shivered as I waited on the opposite side of the wall. I stood there for a full ten minutes, then considered walking back towards the front of the house, knocking on the door and asking if anyone knew what was taking Sergio so long to come out. But I couldn't do it. I was too petrified to move.

From my vantage point on the other side of the brick wall, the backyard of the dwelling still seemed to be reeling with loud voices. Were they still arguing? I could hear Sergio yelling something, but I couldn't make out my friend’s words.

‘Come on, Sergio, stop arguing!’ I silently pleaded. ‘Just turn and walk awa--‘

Then I heard Sergio scream. A loud, blood-curdling screamed that stopped my eleven-year-old heart. Then the scream was cut off suddenly with a loud click. And then silence.

Cold, deadly silence.

‘Sergio!’ My heart was a solid block of ice in my chest. ‘God, Sergio! Oh God! Oh God!’

I wanted to look over the brick wall ... to see what had happened. But I didn’t have to look. I already knew what had happened. So I simply burst into anguished tears and ran screaming from the neighborhood and towards the direction of Progress Park. And I continued to run ... slowing down sometimes to catch my breath ... often screaming because of the burning sensation in my lungs. I ran and ran.

I made it to an empty section of the park and sat down on one of the swings. I must have sat there for hours in absolute misery.

‘Is this what love is?’ I wondered to myself, ‘Caring real deep for someone you love and then feeling like you want to die because this someone gets taken away from you?’ And I really did want to die right then. I never felt so hurt and confused and terrified and so full of anguish in my life.

‘God, please make it so that all this never really happened,’ I prayed intently. ‘Let this all be a dream. Let me wake up in bed with Sergio lying beside me like he did this morning. Grandma always says you answer our prayers, so I’m prayin’, Lord ... please don’t make any of this be real ...’

I was still praying when I heard a noise behind me and I turned around. There was Sergio, running towards me from across the park.

"Tyrell!" the Latino Twelve-year-old cried. And once he reached me he gathered me in a tight embrace. Holding me close, he danced me round and round. "I finally found you!"

I couldn’t believe it. Unable to speak, I returned Sergio’s hug and leaped about like an idiot. Eventually we stopped joyously waltzing and sat ourselves down on two of the swings.

I scrubbed the tears from my eyes and gazed at my friend. "What happened to you, Serge? I thought those gang-bangers killed you!"
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Sergio was startled. "Killed me? What made you think somethin' like that?"

I explained how I'd heard his horrible, blood-curdling scream. And the deathly silence that followed it.

Sergio punched me affectionately in the ribs. "Aye! My poor friend! I screamed because one of the Crips took a hot needle and burned this on me."

The Latino twelve-year-old then opened his coat and shirt, revealing three block-letters burned into the flesh on his chest. The letters ”HSC” ... which stood for Hoover Street Crips. I gasped. The burned-on Tattoo didn't look infected, but it's appearance was still quite disgusting.

"And believe me," Sergio continued, re-buttoning his shirt, "you'd scream too if somebody engraved your chest with a red-hot knitting needle!"

I was puzzled. "But why was that done to you? If the Crips hate someone they’ll normally just kill--"

"It was an honor to have this done to me. You see, G-Dog wanted to lend me the money, but he couldn’t. He told me that the only way he could lend me that much money was if I was a member of his gang. So guess what? I asked to join! And G-Dog and the others accepted me! So I am now a member of the Hoover Street Crips ... and I proudly bear their mark!”

"So they made you a Crip. Why didn't you just come out and tell me ..."

"Well," Sergio looked a bit embarrassed. "When they started burning their sign on me, I sorta fainted. G-Dog sent some of the other gangsters out to look for you ...to tell you what had happened ... but you were long gone! Once I recovered, I went looking for you myself. I just took a guess that you’d be here at the park.”

We embraced again and headed for home. As we left the Progress Park, Sergio showed me a roll of bills big enough to choke a horse. G-Dog had lent the twelve-year-old Latino more than enough money to get the kid’s mother and little brother transported across the border!

When we got home, Aunt Etta reprimanded us for leaving the house on such a hot day without putting on sunscreen. Then she made us strip to the waist and smeared a sweet-smelling concoction all over our bare skin. She lathered us down with this orange-blossom-honey-flavored sunscreen.

Aunt Etta lathered us down.

”It’s all natural,” she told us, ”You could even eat this stuff ... there are no unnatural chemicals in it.”

After we were completely layered in this goop, Sergio and I took a walk towards the Kmart on Compton Boulevard. We detoured for a few minutes in Progress Park again ... ventured into what had become our favorite secluded section near the swings again. For a few moments we just sat there on the swings in companionable silence, then Sergio said, ”You think it’s true ... that we can really eat this stuff your Aunt smeared on us if we wanted to?”

I shrugged, ”I dunno. I just wish I could wash this gunk off me. My skin is even darker than yours ... what do we need sunscreen for? Heck, the sun loves us!”

”You want to wash this stuff off you,” Sergio’s voice quivered nervously, his fingers just a little clumsy as he used an index finger to wipe a bit of the orange blossom honey sunscreen from my cheek and put it to his lips, ”Ummm ... it almost tastes just like regular honey.”

I shivered.

Then the twelve year old Latino bent his head towards me and used his tongue to hesitantly sample the combination of my sweat and the honey-flavored sunscreen on my neck. This was so unexpected that I almost felt my spirit leave my body!

Then I gave into my own feelings and used my own tongue to follow a streak of sunscreen from Sergio’s cheek to his forehead, stopping along the way to lick a drop of sweetness that had collected near his temple. I tried to rationalize our actions. Maybe if we looked at this situation as testing out my aunt’s ”edible sunscreen” theory, I wouldn’t feel like such a weirdo.

Eventually we stopped tasting the sunscreen and continued on our journey to Kmart on wobbly legs.

The day was still excessively hot. We intended to take a shortcut across a street that would shorten our walking time in the oppressive heat by twenty minutes. But when we turned the corner at Alemeda, there before our eyes were kids dancing beneath a sprinkler of water created from a busted fire hydrant.

Underneath this shower of water, kids from the neighborhood were running around in their swim trunks, the youngest ones screeching, their shiny little African-American and Latino bodies so angelic, fleet and swift. There were kids of Black, Hispanic and even Samoan persuasions all mixed into this unexpected party. Their parents and older siblings were watching from the sidelines and were clearly wishing they could abandon their maturity and ”coolness” so that they could join the happy children under the water.

Well Sergio and I were under no such restrictions, so we immediately pulled off our shirts and joined the other kids under the sprinkler ... laughing like crazy as we danced wildly about on the shiny wet black street.

It was a good day for me and Sergio. And it was the first of many.

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