NC HERNANDEZ | The Loneliest One
Certain names and situations have been altered to protect the privacy of those depicted.
2021 AWP Intro Winner
The equilibrium had been disturbed. The cosmic tether that once held me in orbit with my two oldest cousins was now severed. I felt a decentering, a centrifugal spin, a coming apart. At one time we were young and the only three boys in the family, the only three boys in the world. We were now fragments floating out of order, distant memories traveling alongside this moment, close enough to touch. A short breath fills my lungs; I inhale with heaviness, but the air vanishes before I can expel it. I try to calm my asthma by holding one deep breath, counting to ten. One, two, three . . . the clicking of the turn signal pierces the car’s silence . . . four, five; I labor to exhale. I pull the rental car into the parking lot the map has led me to. A heavily guarded funeral lingers in the tepid air of another southern California winter.
In an unmarked tan building, a large hall, harshly lit, was divided by family and friends on one side and the heavily tattooed captains and lieutenants of a gang called Bassett Grande on the other. Young soldiers with fewer tattoos lined the periphery. Some lingered outside keeping watch. The tension in the family section was palpable, not only for the solemnity the occasion demanded, but for the rivalries and vendettas paused on this evening. The lone voice to pierce the silence was my aunt Lucy’s, La Llorona searching for her murdered son. Rene Montaño Jr., reduced to ashes, the solid remains of a retort, settled into the bottom of a silvery urn remarkably small for a man who used to fill rooms. He had been flicked from the tip of a cigar, his many identities broken apart as he smoldered: Rene to the world, Nene to the family, Munch to the gangs, someone we did not even know, someone we have known our whole lives, all together in the tray of that metal chamber.
I came to West Covina that night to be with my family, but mainly to be with my cousin Marco. A long queue of mourners under fluorescent lights waited for him to receive them. The closed-mouth smile loitering on his face belied the gravity of the evening. Marco was the heir apparent receiving the blessings of men in baggy jeans, oversized white T-shirts, and with tattoos on their necks, heads, and faces that read BASSETT, BG, BASSETT GRANDE, or as I saw on one man’s forehead: VARR1O BASSETT. Their unfamiliar faces highlighted how distant I had grown from Nene and Marco. This was their world here to mourn; I had lost a cousin, they had lost a patriarch.
Perhaps our relationships had become those of roles or representations rather than substance. The situations that bound us as children, separated us as adults. Navigating these complexities left me in a wind tunnel of emotions, unable to feel clearly about Nene’s murder, this funeral, my love for my cousin, my family. As I reached the front of the line, Marco saw me. Two years had quickly passed since we had seen each other, but he smiled as if I were receiving an award, almost proud to see me. Nicky! This is what he called me when I was a child.
Primo, que tal? I love you, Marco, I said, stumbling through the words, not knowing exactly what consolation to offer.
I took a step onto the platform and he stood with arms out to embrace me, looking like the Jesus figures that adorned our abuela’s house; Marco Jesus on the candles, Marco Jesus in a velvet painting of La Pietá, Marco Jesus etched on the glass of a curio cabinet filled with tiny figurines of little Marco Jesuses. Except he was dressed only slightly better than the men in the line.
Marco leaned in close to me and without altering the smile on his face, whispered in my ear, Hey, Nicky, pull down my shirt, Homes.
What was that? I asked, Did you say your shirt?
Yeah, he said with a chuckle, Pull down my shirt, ey, I don’t want my gun to show.
I looked down and a pistol was in Marco's waistband, the handle clearly visible as he raised his arms to hug me. I covered the handle with the untucked flap and looked around the hall, but no one seemed to have noticed, or at least they did not care.
Ten years before the funeral, while visiting my abuela in La Puente, I slipped out with Marco to drive around the neighborhood so we could smoke weed away from the house. It was the first time I had seen him in years. Marco began to disappear for weeks at a time and it was difficult to get answers from his mother, who was the channel of information for the older generation. I had to consult with the younger cousins to find anything out: Marco was hiding from the cops, or Marco was on a speed binge, or Marco was back in jail.
How come you never joined Bassett? I asked him in the car as he drove.
Fuck that, ey, no one’s gonna tell me what to do, Marco said with pride on his face. I thought about his sense of autonomy, how he has navigated half of his life in institutions and where he draws his lines of freedom when he is on the street. I put in work for those fools, he continued, But I’m my own boss—I got my own crew, ey.
I noticed a pistol in the driver-side door pocket at this moment, its handle extending into view. What’s up with the pistola? I asked, Do you ever leave that gun behind, primo?
Hell nah, Nicky, that’s how you get caught slipping. He laughed and put the roach in the ashtray as he crossed the train tracks and turned onto Valley Blvd.
We cruised for a while through the City of Industry, a sliver of factories and warehouses that overlapped with and trifurcated the La Puente, Bassett, and Avocado Heights neighborhoods. The Los Angeles sun was mercifully tucked behind wave clouds and contrails, the tracks to our right, desolation everywhere, a stuccoed motel to our left, then nothing, unmarked buildings, then a tire shop, a liquor store, another motel, more nothing, every structure some vapid shade of gray or tan. I wondered how many of these motels Marco had hidden out in at some point in the past, how many secret histories lay in shadows.
What’s up with your dad, ey, you never talk to him? Marco asked me in a way that made me think he had been holding that question back for some time. I told him it had been decades since we spoke. He laughed and expressed his admiration for my father, or at least for his memory of my father. When my cousins lived with my family, my father took the three of us on many adventures. We went on long hikes shooting guns in the woods, matinee movies where we would tie the sleeve of a sweater in a knot and stuff it with penny candies to sneak in, he took us to the beach and it was the first time Marco had seen the ocean; he passed out in the sand after playing so long in the waves. Yellowed family photos from this period show a happy family, a fun family, a family that was together. I posed in front of the Polaroid OneStep at two years old on my abuela’s brown velvet sofa in a Superman shirt, sitting next to my cousins in order of age, Marco screaming with a smile on his face, Nene already twice our size. She paid for los nietos to get three separate soft-light portraits taken and collaged together with heavy vignetting, the three cousins wearing matching 1970s browns, my baby head like a floating apparition the size of Nene’s whole body; the Mexicans with eclass did it this way. Before I had siblings, I had cousins.
I heard he did some crazy shit to your mom’s at the end, Marco said, I thought tío was the good one.
I looked at Marco and wondered how much he knew, or if he just wanted to hear my version, so I told him how my father had stolen the settlement money from a woman he was representing. She was working in a sweatshop when her arm got caught in a heat press and the doors were chained shut, so they couldn’t get in to rescue her in time to save her arm. It was around the time that my father had turned from communist to the worst kind of capitalist pig, which was also concurrent to his switch from cocaine to speed. Damn! Marco exclaimed in a tone that denoted delight. Now, feeling that I was feeding his desire to hear heroic tales of the anti-hero or the villain, I told him that my dad conspired with the woman’s doctor to rip her off, and would’ve gotten away with it, but he tried to rip off the doctor too, and the doctor turned him in. He got disbarred, years in prison, the whole thing.
Damn, tío Javi’s gangster, man, Marco said with approval. We drove for several more streets without speaking before Marco asked, He was doing speed when he went to prison?
I stared ahead and nodded without saying anything. I knew Marco was also smoking speed by this time, but we had never discussed it. I finally asked him about his father. He didn’t respond at first, or look at me, then after a moment he said he hadn’t spoken to him since he was a child. I had heard that Marco had been looking for him some years prior, so I asked if he was still searching. He shook his head but said nothing.
Only a few months before, our uncle Jeff in San Diego had seen a girl on a local newscast that made him laugh because she looked so much like Marco; the distinct forehead, the dark skin, the cheeks, but at the end of her short interview, her name appeared on the screen: Montaño. Somehow Marco found her, she was his half-sister, and she gave him the address of their father, also living in San Diego. It was as if one of those kids on the side of the milk carton had been located. Marco rushed to Rene Sr.’s house, excited to find a father he thought was just lost this whole time, had not been able to find his way home, but he slammed the door in Marco's face.
Well, maybe we’re better off without fucked up fathers in our lives, I told him.
Maybe, right? he responded in a mocking tone.
Probably not, huh? I said.
I think all of us are fucked up because of our dads, ey, I really think that, he said.
Maybe, right? I said in a serious tone.
We were silent the rest of the ride with the pressure of words unspoken, a vacuum in our chests where the pain should be, where we should have learned to talk to each other. I knew he felt it too, but we were so young once and so unarmed. Without speaking, we headed back to the warmth of our abuela’s house, two children again, two half-brothers from fractured homes.
Rene Montaño Sr. was constantly playing with Nene and Marco when they were very small, when the excitement of fatherhood was still brand new, but he also got heavily hooked on heroin and ended up owing a lot of money to drug dealers that he started to avoid. Soon he was no longer avoiding, he was hiding. In the beginning of 1986, several of these men forced their way into the second-story Montaño apartment while Rene Sr. was away, and they tied Lucy to a chair and pointed pistols at Nene and Marco's heads. Their baby brother, Rodrigo, had just been born weeks before, and was crying in the corner of the room. They threatened to kill the boys if Lucy wouldn’t tell them where Rene was. Lucy cried, cursing her husband for putting them in this situation. As she lost hope, sirens started to blare outside, and they could hear the police cars screeching to a halt just outside the building. The police had, by chance, been called to a disturbance in the apartment directly below, but the invaders panicked. They told Lucy that if she talked to the cops, they would come back later and kill the whole family, and then they scurried out the door. The boys untied their mother, and she peeked through the front window blinds. The drug dealers were sitting in their car watching her apartment, waiting for the police to leave. Lucy quickly grabbed every sheet in the house that she could find and tied them together to make a rope. She tied one end to a dresser leg and slung the other out of a window in the back of the apartment. With her newborn baby in her hands, and Nene and Marco behind her, she climbed out of the window, and ran behind the building to the street on the other side of the block. Lucy took the boys and came straight to our house.
Just as suddenly as they arrived, they had moved in with us, but no one told me the reason why, and I did not care, I was just happy that they were there. I hated when Nene and Marco had to go home at the end of visits. They always had each other. They even had a baby brother, a further promise of company, but when they left, I was alone. I didn’t know many only-children, if any. This was uncommon in Mexican families of the 1980s. The reason for my dismay was obvious to me: being alone was no fun.
But I was too young to see the impact that Rene Sr.’s drug use, and Lucy’s inability to cope with trauma and hardship, was having on my cousins. All I knew was that they were not as happy about the move as I was. Nene and Marco would ask constantly about their father. They would ask their mother, they would ask our aunts and uncles, our abuela, my mother. Rene Sr. fled to his family in Mexico, and they tied him to a bed for two weeks to force him to kick the habit. Once clean, he just started his life over, without Lucy and the boys. My mother would tell the boys, He’s visiting family in Mexico, mijos, he’ll be back soon.
Nene and Marco enrolled in my school, and Marco was placed in a class with Ms. Singleton, a large snapping woman who scared the children. Marco would shout obscenities in class to make the other kids laugh, and then he would run from her and make her chase him, sometimes right out of the classroom door, which infuriated her. Chiiiild, get back here, I would hear her screaming from my classroom and sometimes see his small frame run past the window, right to left like a Buster Keaton movie, Ms. Singleton tumbling after him in the next scene, hurling one enormous leg after the other, until he would double back into the class before she could get him. Marco would laugh, and hide behind bookshelves, or under tables, as Ms. Singleton lumbered towards him, rarely quick enough to catch the unruly child. When she did catch him, she would yank him by his ear back to his seat. One day, she wouldn’t let him go to the bathroom and he shit his pants in class. I was six years old, but even then I considered it malice on her part and I hated her as much as I feared her. A few classmates at school were laughing about the incident later that day and Nene got within an inch of their faces. He was already one of the biggest kids in the school, and everyone feared him on the schoolyard.
Say it again, fuckers, say it again, let me see you laugh, Nene said.
The boys just stared at the ground as Nene hovered over them. No one mentioned the shitting again, at least not in earshot of any of us, and it was only a few months until summer. Marco began to steal my clothes and wear them to school. The adults would make a big deal out it, but I never cared, because all of a sudden, the two newest kids at school were my cousins and lived with me and on top of that, everyone was scared of them.
Nene and Marco were constantly asking my father to take us places. He had a jeep with a vinyl top that we would remove when we went cruising. We drove everywhere in that jeep. Hey, tío Javi, can I control the radio? Marco would ask. Yeah, mijo, go ahead, and Marco quickly put on the Beastie Boys, or Run DMC, and my father let him turn the volume all the way up as we screamed along. Once while renting videos at Blockbuster, we snuck straight into the Adults Only section, as we always did.
Hey, Nicky, get your dad to let us rent this movie, Nene said while he handed me a VHS tape called Best Chest in the West, Part II.
Marco started laughing, Yeah, ask him, ask him.
No way, he’s going to get pissed and say no, I said.
I’ll ask him, Nene said as he stood up straight like a man and marched toward my father with the tape in his hand.
I looked at Marco who shrugged his shoulders, and we ran behind Nene in time to hear my father say, Hell no, I am not getting you this, what the fuck is wrong with you kids?
C’mon, tío, Nene pleaded, It’s not full nudity, look, it’s not even rated X, it’s just R. Nene was adamantly handing the box to my father who finally examined it with a furrowed brow, but not a look of complete disapproval.
We’ll watch it quiet, after everyone goes to bed, Nene added.
In one of those moments of folly that young fathers fall prey to, he reluctantly agreed to rent a video that was not rated X for three prepubescent boys. But when we got to the counter to check out, the woman ringing us up paused on that particular title and then noticed the wrong tape was in the box.
Do you want me to find the right tape, sir? She asked in an annoyed voice.
Yeah! Marco responded before my father could say anything. She looked down at our eagerly smiling faces, then back at my father who was visibly vacillating between embarrassment and anger.
We can just put it back, he told her.
No, it’s fine, she said and quickly got on the intercom in an exaggerated voice, Can someone on the floor find a missing tape?
No, really, let’s just forget it, my father begged.
She continued as if she had not heard him, Best, Chest, In the West . . . Part II? She dragged out the words as they echoed in the aisles. Eyes turned in our direction. My father had his face in his hands while we laughed.
He yelled at us in the parking lot and we didn’t go back to that store for a year. He hadn’t signed up for two more sons, he never signed up for the first one, but he did not let on about adult pressures or the hidden dramas out of sight of children’s eyes. For now, Nene and Marco had a family with a father, though it was not their father, and I had two brothers, though they were not my brothers.
When Nene and Marco left our house at the end of that summer to go live with our abuela, I cried and protested, but Lucy was offered a job in La Puente and a room in her parent’s home in Bassett rent free, so as suddenly as they had arrived they were now gone. Not long after they moved into the Orange Blossom house, a teenaged boy down the street started babysitting Nene, Marco, and Rodrigo when Lucy was working. He raped Nene and Marco when they were alone and soon after Nene was caught trying to molest our cousin Jennifer as she cried in a closet. Lucy took her three sons and got her own apartment. These are details I did not learn until I was an adult. These explanations, given to me years too late, retroactively broke my heart. Was I to lament my cousins as they are now, or as they were then? I still do not know where they carried these tragedies.
I saw my cousins often, even after they moved. One of our favorite things to do was go to a medieval-themed amusement park called Castle Park not far from La Puente. One day, when I was still very small, we entered at the back of the park the large castle that housed the arcade. Nene stood beneath shoddy recreations of medieval turrets with a fistful of quarters that he was dispensing with the affection of a benevolent little dictator, but I knew that if I ran out of quarters early, Marco would give me his.
Why can’t we just split them up? Marco asked.
Cuz you’ll spend them all and then I’ll have to kick your ass, Nene told him.
Nene continued to grow to over six feet and two hundred pounds by the time he was sixteen. The first time Nene took us for a drive, just after getting his license, it was raining heavily. As we drove, there was group of people that were waiting for a bus half a block ahead of us on our right. Watch this, Nene said as he raced through a large puddle in front of all of them. I couldn’t believe he did it with such force, and we all laughed. Let’s go back! Marco said. Nene drove around the block and pulled up in front of the same bus stop, in front of the same people, now soaked with dirty puddle water. Marco rolled down the passenger-side window, and he and Nene put up their middle fingers while they yelled and laughed. I shrunk in the back seat. Nene hit the gas and drove us to the mall, and I hoped there would be no more puddles on the way. Hours later, when leaving the mall, we crossed a second-story bridge that connected the store to the parking garage.
Ah, no way, look, Marco said. Nene and I glanced down and saw a long line of people waiting to enter a movie theatre below, and as if rehearsed, Nene and Marco leaned over the railing and spit. Hey, you fuckers! Marco yelled, and everyone in the line looked up just in time to have the boys’ spit spray their faces. Nene and Marco laughed and pointed and spit again. As people yelled and ran for cover, Nene and Marco just kept standing there and laughing. A few men came running up the stairs towards us and I felt the rush of hot panic fill my head. It was the lingering that disturbed me most of all though, that they had such irreverence and such a lack of fear. It was the first time I could see that they were going beyond mischief, that they were not dealing in fear any longer.
Let’s get the fuck out of here, please, I pleaded. We all ran to the car. On the ride home, Nene and Marco sat in the front seat, blasted Zapp & Roger, and I sat in the back seat, feeling a sense of loss and loneliness, and confused as to what had changed. When I looked at them in the front seat, still laughing, I felt something like contempt mixed with love, awe mixed with pity. I did not say a word on the whole ride, and they did not notice.
Within a few years, when my father switched from snorting cocaine to snorting speed, he began to spend whole nights looking for aliens through a telescope. I also had a burgeoning heroin habit and started playing in bands seriously around this time. I sold my car to buy a van for my band to tour in, but my father stole the money first. Soon he was making dramatic scenes in the house, and declared he was moving out. Within a year of that, he went to prison, and then he was just gone, I never saw him again, I never spoke to him again. Meanwhile, Marco and Nene were smoking meth and beginning to do real crimes: burglaries, drug dealing, buying and selling contraband. Nene was the first to go to prison, for credit card fraud and drugs. Soon, I stopped seeing Nene at all. Lucy remarried a nice man named Manuel, but Nene and Marco hated him because he was not Rene Sr. Once when they were both out of prison at the same time and dealing drugs out of their mother’s house, the cops raided it in the early morning hours as everyone slept and made them lay on the ground at gunpoint, including Manuel’s eighty-year-old mother who was visiting from Mexico, but they found nothing. Manuel tried to force Lucy to evict the boys, but when she did, they slapped her and refused to leave.
Almost twenty years later, at the Orange Blossom house during my abuela’s seventy-fifth birthday homage, to the soundtrack of a mariachi and thirty years of my abuela’s vocal students singing rancheras about love and tragedy, and while waiting for Marco to arrive at the party with his two children that I had never met, my cousin Fernando casually told me Marco loves to stab people. Fernando is large with a ubiquitous ponytail and peach fuzz moustache, and he seems to have stopped aging at around sixteen, though he is at least a decade older than that now.
Still? I said, He’s like thirty-five now, man, he has kids, he’s not really stabbing people, is he?
Fernando laughed at my incredulity and said, Dude, the fucking guys from Bassett are scared of him, ey, he’s fucking crazy, it’s the meth, man.
Fernando told me that a few months prior, a younger member of Bassett named Puppet, who did not know who Marco was, found out that he was doing crimes in his territory and so he told Marco that he had to pay a percentage of everything he made. Marco responded by getting a machine gun and driving around Bassett looking for Puppet. If he saw someone from Bassett in the street, he would pull over. Hey, you seen Puppet? Marco would yell out of the window with the machine gun in his lap, I’m looking for him. The bosses of Bassett had to call a meeting with Marco and Puppet. They told Marco that there were no guns allowed at the meeting and that it would take place in a car. When they arrived to pick up Marco, it was two of the bosses from Bassett in the front seat, and Puppet already in the backseat. As soon as Marco got in and saw he was sitting next to Puppet, he said, Fuck you, you little bitch, you ain’t shit. Puppet just looked at the bosses in the front of the car, not expecting the meeting to begin this way. Well, you fucked with him, you fucked with Marco, right? they said to Puppet, We didn’t tell you to do that shit, he’s Munch’s brother, so you gotta squash it.
Not knowing what to do, Puppet pulled out a pistol that he was hiding in his jacket and pointed it at Marco. The man in the passenger seat pulled out his gun and pointed it at Puppet; he had violated the ground rules of the meeting. You fucked up, Marco said to Puppet, Have you ever shot someone at close range like this? It takes fucking balls to do it. Puppet lowered his gun. The car stopped. Yo, Marco, just split, ey, just take off, the bosses told Marco, and so that was how it ended. Puppet moved away right after this. Marco was saved, but was never scared of dying.
My abuela kept a camper parked in the large backyard of her Orange Blossom property, and she would let Marco live there rent free when he was not in prison. When we were children, we played hide-and-seek in that same yard. We named all twelve of the chickens living back there, until our abuelo came home and gently told us, Eeee, mijos, don’t name them. Right where the coop used to be, the camper was later parked, and Marco had begun to stockpile weapons there, and would grow paranoid after staying up for several days at a time on speed. During my abuela’s party, as we stood in the grave-shaped plot of dead grass that day, it was the first time I even noticed the camper was gone. She had removed it after the incident. Marco had been awake for several days, long enough for the hallucinatory states of meth-fuelled restlessness to take over. Our cousins Fernando and Adrian went to visit him in this camper, bringing pot and beers, but when they arrived, Marco was sweating and paranoid. He ordered them into the camper at gunpoint, telling them repeatedly to get down out of sight. They’ll see you, Marco kept repeating, ignoring the questions about who they were hiding from. Fernando and Adrian decided they had to leave, but that was when Marco turned from paranoid to angry, ordering them to sit on the sofa next to a stockpile of guns, and stay quiet as he peaked through the blinds. He kept our cousins there for several hours, until the sun came up, before deciding it was safe in the yard.
It was fucking traumatizing, Fernando told me.
Did you talk to him about this later, when he was sober? I asked.
Bro, he’s never sober, Fernando said.
A few days after the incident, the police raided the camper looking for Marco and the stockpile of guns, but neither was anywhere to be found. Our grandmother was fined for having an illegal rental unit on her property, so she sold the camper to pay the fine and prevent Marco's return.
Marco drove up to the party just before sundown. After meeting his children, I got a chance to sit and talk with him on that same rectangular patch of dead grass. I offered to get him a plate of food from the taquero in the back of our abuela’s yard.
Nah, I just smoked a bunch of speed, Marco said, But hey, you still like Levis?
I heard myself make an unapproving noise, and I said something about how I had not seen him in years and the first thing he did was offer me stolen goods.
Homie, this is as legit as I get, he said.
He cycled through a short list of stolen goods that were in his possession to see if he could gift me anything from his stash. If I asked where he had gotten any of the items he mentioned, he would say, Someone owed me money. Apparently the whole of the East Los Angeles area was in danger of becoming indebted to him. As I was ready to dispel the whole notion as absurd, he got to the musical equipment.
What do you call that thing, with all the knobs in the recording studios, big fucking thing? Marco asked as he twisted invisible knobs and put his hands out to his sides to denote the hugeness of said item.
It’s called a mixing console, I said, and I agreed to meet him the following day at his storage space to take a look at it.
In 2016, my mother called me on the phone, crying softly, Mijo, someone shot your cousin Rene.
I had been expecting this call for years. The last time that I had seen Nene alive was the year before on Christmas eve at my mother’s house. I knew Nene was dead before my mother said it.
Someone shot him on his front lawn, from a car, at around two in the morning, she said. Nene was her first nephew, he was the first grandson, my abuelo Rafael used to hold up one finger to Nene and mouth: num-ber-one. He just lay there, she said, No one called the police.
That could have been her son, I thought, and at one point, many years before, he was a kind of son to her.
This has all been confirmed? I asked, with the same chill in my tone that I felt in my throat.
She said, Your tía Lucy talked to the police, she is going to view the body, but they’re sure it was him, mijo.
By the time the police came, Nene had mostly bled out. He died twelve hours later at the hospital. The news did not release his name because of the investigation into the shooting, which they suspected was gang-related, so it was first reported as the murder of a 39-year-old man in La Puente. I immediately tried to call Marco, but as usual he did not answer his phone. What I didn’t know was that Marco was already busy looking for the people from the Puente Trece gang that he was sure had orchestrated the assassination.
Weeks after Nene’s murder, people in the neighborhood were saying that Marco had already shot some cholos from Trece. Veteranos from Bassett told Marco that he could not be going around trying to kill everyone, though Marco knew they were too scared to try to stop him themselves. Since he wasn’t officially a member, they couldn’t sanction him, but since he was Munch’s brother, they also couldn’t attack him without permission. This put Marco in a kind of nebulous gray area where he could benefit from his association with Bassett without having to follow their rules. Although Marco was sure Trece was responsible for Nene’s death, there was no proof and no one had claimed the killing yet, as gangs commonly did. Trece understood the strange nature of Marco's relationship to Bassett, and realized that though Marco had grown up in Bassett, he was never jumped in. What they were now banking on was that without Munch alive, and with no clear killer, Bassett wasn’t going to wage a war over Marco, who was seen as a liability; they may even be glad to be rid of him.
On the night of the funeral, as the proceedings began to slow down and people trickled out, gathering in small groups outside the building, Marco said to me, Yo, Nicky, come kick it at the pad, man, we’re gonna cruise, just the crew; Nene’s coming. Marco held the urn in his hands.
Yeah, of course, I said, Where?
Not far, Marco said, It’s in South Central, just follow me.
I pulled the rental car out of the parking space, and Marco and one other car in tow peeled out at full speed onto the street. I had no choice but to do the same if I was going to keep up. A text from my mother came in: Be careful, I just saw how you pulled out after your cousin.
We walked into Marco's building, a dingy two-story with stained carpet hallways, shared bathrooms in the halls, and single-room apartments. We walked into the studio with Marco's girlfriend Alice and four guys that worked for him. All belied the stereotypical image of the urban gangster. They look preppy, I thought to myself: gelled hair, woolen sweaters, designer jeans, and no tattoos. One wore loafers. Marco placed the urn on an entertainment unit in a slot carved out for it among stacks of shoe boxes, and before we took our seats around the low futons, the men took their pistols out of their waistbands and placed them on the coffee table so that they could sit more comfortably.
This place is a mess, babe, why don’t you clean up for our honorable guests? Marco joked to Alice as he picked up piles of papers and clothes to make space to sit.
You’re a fucking dirtbag, she responded, not laughing and not helping.
People in the room wanted to speak freely, but still did not understand why I was there. Marco had not introduced me and I, with my charcoal suit and grenadine tie, was obviously not from Bassett, or from anywhere.
Marco said, Don’t worry, ey, this is my cousin Nicky, he’s cool.
Their shoulders slackened and they began to reveal elaborate plans to locate the people that killed Munch. Marco just sat with his shaved head in his hands, looking zen-like, contemplative, listening to each soldier give a report in hushed tones, leaning in close to them as he gave his attention.
That chick, she hangs around with Trece, one of the men said to Marco, She sent me a text out of the blue, I never even talk to her, but she sent me a text to hang out, it had this weird link, mira, I didn’t click it, cuz I seen it before, I think she was trying to see how I would respond.
Yeah, it’s true, Alice said, If you click it, it downloads a virus and it locks on your phone’s GPS then they can see where your phone is whenever it’s on.
They began to devise a plan where they would respond to the text message and set a time to meet the woman, expecting an ambush, they could lay in wait in their van with an arsenal of weapons. One of the soldiers said he could get the guns. 400 rounds per minute, what the military uses, he said. Marco raised his head at this news.
How many can you get? Marco asked him.
However many we need, the soldier responded, I just need two days, I can get whatever.
Someone started passing a bong around the room. When it got to me, I almost smoked it but quickly noticed that it wasn’t weed, but speed, so I passed it along. The smell of cologne mixing with the meth smoke was giving me asthma and I began to breathe heavily. After hours of this, I realized I should not be there with them, acting as casually as I was while they planned multiple high-tech murders, but I was also curious about who this person had become, my cousin that I had known my entire life, to see how he operated in the world now. I looked for the boy bouncing in the passenger seat while the music played, the one who was always eager to protect me.
Then it’s settled, ey, Marco said, This is a good plan, we get these fuckers to show up, then we rush ‘em and put them in the van and tie ‘em up.
Then what? I heard myself ask before I could remember that I intended to remain silent. Everyone looked at me, but I could not read their faces. Perhaps there was nothing in them to read.
Then we do some fucked up shit to them and make them talk, someone said. Everyone sat in silence for what felt like a long time, a contemplative amount of space where the mind is free to roam beyond the boundaries of the conversation at hand. I wondered where the line crossing into accessory was, and started looking for an opportunity to make an unremarkable exit.
It had been a long time since I had seen Marco, and even longer since we were alone together away from the family. I worried he was getting in so deep this time that I may not see him again, that he would either be put in prison or killed, or both. I worried that I was also getting myself in too deep. I had just buried one cousin, and the thought of burying a second and taking the role of the oldest cousin: it was depressing. Then I thought to myself: I don’t really know what Marco is doing regularly. Is he always on a killing rampage? Maybe I am overreacting. How violent can his ordinary days be though?
Marco’s phone buzzed and interrupted my deliberations. His grim eyes looked down at the screen and lingered, then a subtle smile cracked his mood and he looked up.
Tony’s almost here with a buncha’ hood rats, Marco said, Yo, Nicky, you’ll like Tony, man, he’s fucking funny. Alice punched him in the arm; I took that as a cue.
I should probably get going, I said, It’s almost midnight and I have to drive back to SF early.
Marco walked me out to my car, and as we got onto the street a well populated hot dog stand connected to a loud generator was playing hip hop on the corner while people swayed and laughed. We were able to remain for a moment in each other’s company, alone, wrapped in the intermittent headlights of the passing cars. We noted how much Marco's daughter looked like him, we talked about Nene, but mostly we danced around the pressing questions. What is going to happen next? How do we heal these old wounds that seem like they will never stop bleeding? What happened to our ancestors that their ghosts are still so close behind us, can still follow us?
You’re number one now, primo, I said to Marco.
I know, it’s crazy having Nene in that little urn, Marco said, I told my mom I wanted to stuff that big fucker like a bear and put him in my front door to scare people.
Just be careful, primo, I said, I don’t want to be number one, don’t make me be the oldest.
Tony interrupted the moment as he pulled up in front of the building in a souped-up Mazda with a woman in the passenger seat followed by a shabby limousine. Aaaaaaay, baby, we’re here, Tony yelled with a smile. He had slicked back hair and a sports suit on. His passenger was a blonde woman who looked bored. A parade of five mini-skirted women, obviously at the end of a long sweaty night, came pouring out of the limousine. We all stood for a moment under the streetlamp that spotlighted this grotesque tableau. Marco looked at me with a grin.
You sure you don’t wanna stay, Nicky? he asked.
He was already walking back into the building with the group and I was already walking towards the street corner. I felt for the vacuum in my chest. It wasn’t there, not for the moment at least. But I wasn’t sure what was there. When I recall that truncated goodbye to Marco—how we just fall from one another, when I want to grab him and hold him, to remind him of the love I carried with me all these years, that I saved and want to give to him now, that he could put in the urn with Nene, and maybe when the gun grows cold he’ll know it will be waiting on the shelf between the shoe boxes, but I know there is nothing there for him to hold onto, nothing but outlines of memories left in ashes—I can see that we were already ghosts, passing each other in the streets; but in the moment, I just sat in my car and listened to the oldies station play Three Dog Night while I watched the hot dog stand party across the street. I was alone again with the specters of memory.
NC Hernandez is a Chicano writer from southern California, temporarily living in San Francisco since 2010 with his partner and two cats. He has worked as a behaviorist for children with autism, a touring musician, and an immigrant rights activist who led the first visitation program in California for federally imprisoned immigrants. He currently works in a non-profit organization, spends part of his year in Mexico City, and invents his own cocktails. Hernandez writes sociopolitical essays about male violence, music, and classic menswear.
Photograph by Daniele Levis Pelusi