Skin of Tattoos by Christina Hoag
Los Angeles homeboy Magdaleno is paroled from prison after serving time on a gun possession frameup by a rival, Rico, who takes over as gang shotcaller in Mags’s absence. Mags promises himself and his Salvadoran immigrant family a fresh start, but he can’t find either the decent job or the respect he craves from his parents and his firefighter brother, who look at him as a disappointment. Moreover, Rico, under pressure to earn money to free the Cyco Lokos’ jailed top leader and eager to exert his authority over his rival-turned-underling, isn’t about to let Mags get out of his reach. Ultimately, Mags’s desire for revenge and respect pushes him to make a decision that ensnares him in a world seeded with deceit and betrayal, where the only escape from rules that carry a heavy price for transgression is sacrifice.
Night in L.A. can be heavy as a medieval cloak or it can sparkle and crackle. It can burn you with its current, protect you or betray you. It can be like a jaina with a wet pout and curves that clap into your cupped hands. Tonight L.A. was just heavy; swimming in sweet syrup heavy.
I stood on the sidewalk and breathed in a lungful of darkness. For the first time in twenty-six months and thirteen days, I was free to go to the corner store and buy a Snickers. At least that was my excuse for slipping out my first night home, in case anyone asked. But they didn’t. Moms and my sisters went to bed, my brother Frank wouldn’t be home til the next day and Pops was working his night job. I bolted.
The quietness rang in my ears like I’d been punched upside the head. I had to listen to find noise. It was there. A siren whooped, a car door slammed, but they were faded, comfortable noises like a pair of old jeans. Noise wasn’t up close like in lockup with all its yelling, buzzing, clanging—the constant rumble of hundreds of angry vatos. And it was dark. No lights blaring into every little crack of privacy all the time.
I threw the hoodie up over my head and walked past the store flashing the Tecate neon sign behind a barred window, feeling the moon watching me. I was going to see Blueboy. A parole violation for sure. He was on the D.A.’s gang affiliate list and so was I. I was home and free, but not home free. Not by a long shot. But I had to see Blue. We went way back, to before we were both jumped in to the Cyco Lokos. That was a lifetime and a half ago. Just seven years. But they were gang years, which kind of count like dog years. We were thirteen.
Blueboy lived in the armpit of the 110 and 10 freeways. If he was home, he’d be slouched on the couch watching TV with the lights off, like we always did when his moms was working nights at the hospital.
He was going to be surprised when he saw me. I didn’t get word to my homeboys about my release date. I missed the hell out of them, but I wasn’t getting back in the life again. I couldn’t do more time. That’s all la vida loca was going to get me. Or killed. Same difference.
It felt rich just to push one foot ahead of the other and to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I stuck my arms straight out and walked like that for a while, looking into windows. People watching TV, eating. Women carrying babies, wearing curlers. Tetas.
I pushed open Blueboy’s gate. The pitbulls next door barked as I ambled down the driveway to the illegal garage conversion where he lived with his moms and sister. Blue flickers from the TV flashed through the missing slats of the window blinds. He was home. For the first time since eight o’clock that morning, when the State of California spit me out to a bus stop, my bones didn’t creak.
I drum-rolled my knuckles on the door. The blinds rustled and then the door burst open.
“Mags! What the fuck, fool?” He hugged me. I hugged him back. Hard. “Why you didn’t tell me you were coming home? I thought I was seeing things.”
“Just got home today.” Big smiles splashed on our faces.
He stood back to let me in. “Damn, you got buff, homes. You been working out?”
“That’s all I did inside, work out and go to school. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I feel you.”
Blueboy looked the same. Tall and bony with vanilla ice cream skin and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Eyes like the desert sky. Everybody thought he was white, which pissed him off. He was as Salvadoran as I was.
“I can’t believe you’re back. Lotta shit going down with the clica lately, dog. You seen anybody yet?”
Before I could answer, someone called my name. I knew who it was. I turned. Paloma stood in the doorway. All the organs in my body stopped working, except my eyes. Lean dulce de leche legs, a slender neck that swung into all kinds of curves, face framed by a dark thick mane. Her lips parted, revealing a hint of bright white teeth. A lit fuse zoomed from me to her and her to me and back again. My ribcage ached. It was still there, what we had before I got locked up. I thought my feelings for her were long gone down a bottomless black hole but now here they were, bouncing back up at me. Fuck.
“Sup Paloma,” I croaked. Seeing her had suddenly rusted my voice.
“When did you get out?” she said.
“Girl, go back to your room,” Blueboy ordered. “You got breakfast shift in the morning, or you forgot?”
She threw her brother a resentful look, then disappeared. The palms of my hands had sprouted seeds of sweat. I wiped them on my jeans, hoping to hell Blueboy didn’t pick up on our eyes eloping.
I cleared my throat. “I gotta get me a candy bar, homes. You coming?”
He rolled his eyes. “You and fucking candy bars. I can’t understand how you never got a face like a pizza from them fucking things.”
Outside, the cool air dried my sweat and the freeway’s seashell roar blocked the echo of Paloma’s voice calling my name in my head. We turned down an alley to get out of the sightline of any passing five-o. This late at night, we were easy pickings for cops to jam us.
“So whatup in the barrio?” I said.
“Rico’s the chingón now, fool.”
I stared at him. “You tripping me, right homes?”
“Chivas caught a case, a 187. He’s in county, no bail. He’s still calling the shots, but Rico’s running the street.”
So that hijo de fucking puta Rico got in slick with the shotcaller, taking my place while I was doing his time. I kicked an empty can into some trash bins. Someone groaned. We pulled our fists out of our pockets. A drunk was propped up against the fence.
“Wanna roll him?”
“Nah, his ass ain’t worth it,” I said.
We walked on.
“Rico’s stepping on us hard, bro. He’s got the clica slinging day and night, collecting taxes in the park. The vatos with the fake IDs. Anybody parking their ass on the grass.”
“That bullshit again?” I always hated that smalltime crap, hitting on vatos who made like ten bucks a day pushing ice cream carts. “I thought Chivas wanted to stick to big shit off the street.”
“That was before life without parole was staring him down. That ain’t all. He’s stepping on Rico to find new territory we can move into. Rico wants us to hit this place where the maricones hook up.”
I frowned. “Damn.”
“Chivas ain’t going with no P.D. so he’s gotta pay for a lawyer.” Blueboy rubbed his fingers and thumb together.
“So he knows he’s going down on this murder.”
“They got DNA on him, homes. They found his blood on a body dumped in the desert, like a tiny speck of it. Case was cold til they tested the blood.”
“He’s right to get his own lawyer, that’s for damn sure. All them P.D.s want you to do is cop a plea so they don’t have to work the trial.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
Chivas was an O.G. back from when the Salvadorans got together in the eighties against the Mexicans, who didn’t appreciate thousands of guanacos flooding into L.A., even though we were escaping a civil war.
He got his placa because he was always watching a Chivas de Guadalajara soccer game on TV with a bottle of Chivas Regal in his hand, his favorite drink. He was respected in the barrio because he pulled a lot of shit over the years but always beat the raps. But now la ley finally caught up to him. Big time. If he went down on this 187, he was behind the wall for thirty years, at least.
“So this is Rico’s big chance to be shotcaller. He must really be getting off on that,” I said.
“You know what he’s like, homes.”
“Yeah, I know that aight.”
I’d been the one in the clica who Chivas trusted the most, his right-hand vato. That was why Rico set me up with a trey-eight with an armed robbery on it and got me sent down. With Chivas in lockup, it looked like Rico’s plan worked out better than he ever dreamed. A lump rose in my throat.
We stepped out of the alley to go to the market on the corner. A whistle, low and long, sliced the air. An LAPD black-and-white rolled down the street real slow.
We ducked back in the alley, pressing ourselves flat as flip-flops against the wall in deep shadow. It seemed like forever til the patrol car crawled by. We slid down the wall to a squat in case it circled the block.
“I’m real glad you’re back, Mags. The others gonna be real glad, too.”
“It was a long haul this time, loco.”
“The homies weren’t down with what happened. It wasn’t righteous.”
“No, it wasn’t.” I paused, then I figured I just had to come out with it. “I can’t get in the mix again, Blue. I gotta stay straight.”
A tick of silence passed. Blue shifted his weight like my words were too heavy for him. I held my breath, waiting for his reaction. What I just said was like walking out of church while the priest was saying misa. Disrespect, with a capital D.
“You want out?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“I feel you,” he said finally. “This ain’t no kinda life, watching your back all the damn time.” He understood. I knew he would. He pitched a piece of gravel against the opposite wall. “But we chose it.”
Maybe he didn’t understand as much as I thought. I knew I was letting him down, but he hadn’t just done twenty-six months on a setup.
“Maybe it kinda chose us.”
“How you figuring on getting out, exactly?”
“Mira, homes. I just took a fucking felony rap for the clica. I got possession of an illegal firearm on my jacket. That ain’t no joke. And I did forty-five days in the hole over a beef with a 5150.”
“We heard about that. Chivas said you’re a real loyal soldier.”
“I just about lost my mind for that loyalty. Solitary is heavy shit. I’m gonna ask Chivas to go on veterano status. I figure I paid my dues.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna deny you’re down for the clica, homes. But it ain’t gonna be easy. Chivas is looking for soldiers to earn. He ain’t gonna be waving bye-bye, and Rico’s his man on the street. He won’t do you no favors. You know that.”
“Rico can be the fucking shotcaller for all I care.” The words corkscrewed on my tongue. There was a time when I couldn’t have even imagined letting Rico win without a fight. Now I just admitted my defeat. It hung like a bad smell in the air. “I been thinking bout this a long time.”
“Yeah, but that was in there. Now you’re out here.” He was right. Things did change when you were on the outside. “There’s something else I gotta tell you, homes, bout your sister.”
“Lissy?” It had to be my older younger sister who always ran with trouble. Moms and Frank were real protective of Zully, my baby sis.
“She hooked up with a 5150.”
“Fuck.” I rubbed my chin. “That’s why she was so quiet at dinner, didn’t hardly say a word to me the whole time. Does Rico know?”
He shook his head. “Flaco saw her with the 51, a vato named Payaso Santana, a few weeks back. The only person he told was me. You might want to handle it before word gets out.”
“How I’m gonna do that?”
Blueboy hoisted his left shoulder in his weird, one-sided shrug. “She’s your sister.”
Dealing with Lissy was like handling a live grenade. It figured that she’d pick a banger with the Cyco Lokos’ sworn enemy. This was against code and could bring major repercussions against me and her. Fuck. I was only home for a few hours, and already the shit was piling up.
“Depends on how down she is with the vato,” Blueboy said.
“Yeah, maybe it’s nothing.”
“You want to go to Gato’s? Celebrate? He’s always asking for you.”
Gato moved G-rides out of the port, shipping them to Colombia, where he was from. I used to be his top vato for jacking cars. “I’m not ready yet. I’m gonna get me some candy bars and go on home, dog.” We stood. “Do me a solid. Don’t tell Rico and the homies I’m back.”
“I never saw you, homes, but they gonna find out soon enough.”
“I just need some time. Get myself set up with a job, parole, all that shit.”
He slapped me on the shoulder. “Come round and say hi to my moms.”
I nodded. Doña Flor always treated me like another son.
We clasped hands, pumping our joined fist against our chests. Blueboy shot down the alley, and I rolled out into the street.
I made for the corner store, my head buzzing. This shit about Rico being the crew boss was throwing me. It should be me. I was Chivas’s lieutenant. He always said I was the smartest of the crew. I could be trusted. I had follow-through. I had throwdown. What did that get me? Two years en el fuckin bote and somebody else moving into my slot. And I was gonna stand by like a pussy. A vein beat at my temple. But I couldn’t let this fuck me up. I had to let it go. I took a deep breath and let it out slow, like they taught us in anger management. When I reached the bottom of my lungs, Rico was gone and Paloma was there. Man, it was happening all over again. I thought I had smothered it, killed it, but there it was. I wanted her, bad.
“Well, if it ain’t mi amigo, Magdaleno Argueta.” I twisted. A face leered out of the passenger window of the black-and-white that had crept up behind me. The panel of hairsprayed hair, the cheeks with an oatmeal complexion, the gold chain glinting in the hollow of his throat. Fuck. “You paroled already? I thought I put you away for longer.”
I hardened my jaw. “I did my time, Officer Morales.”
“I don’t think you learned your lesson, homeboy. You’re still hanging out on street corners.”
“I’m going to the store. No law against that.”
“If I catch you with your homies, I could run you in. You know that, don’t you?”
“You see me with any homeboys?” I held my arms out and made a show of looking around.
Morales locked his eyes into mine and poked his finger in the air. “You get mouthy with me, sonny, and I’ll violate you faster than you can sing ay-yai-yai.”
The police radio squawked. “Two-eleven in progress. All units in the area respond to the jewelry store in the strip mall at Venice and Union. Code three.”
The cop at the wheel picked up the handset.
“Sounds like you got an armed robbery to attend to, Officer,” I said.
Morales’ eyes stayed on mine. “Light em up, Yankevich.”
The Crown Vic’s light bar flared in red and blue flashes and it zoomed off with a low roar, siren yelping. It blasted through a red light and disappeared.
Cops. They thought they owned the world and in a way they did. They could do whatever they wanted and get away with it. Everyone listened to them because they had a badge and a uniform. No one listened to us, we were just cholos. But sometimes they were wrong and we were right—and then what?
I swung open the store door too hard and it crashed into the wall.
“Oiga, you break the door, you pay for it,” the pot-bellied mexicano called from behind the counter.
About the Author:
Christina Hoag is the author of Skin of Tattoos, a literary thriller set in L.A.’s gang underworld (Martin Brown Publishers, August 2016) and Girl on the Brink, a romantic thriller for young adults (Fire and Ice YA/Melange Books, August 2016). She is a former reporter for the Associated Press and Miami Herald and worked as a correspondent in Latin America writing for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the co-author of Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, a groundbreaking book on gang intervention (Turner Publishing, 2014). She resides in Los Angeles. For more information, see www.christinahoag.com.