EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this week, our founder Julio Ricardo Varela, had the distinct honor to participate in the Breakout: Voices from the Inside annual event that highlights celebrates and recognizes excellence in prison writing. Hosted by PEN America, the event honor the best writing submitted to the PEN Prison Writing Contest.
The following story, originally published on PEN’s site, was awarded the 2017 First Place in Fiction. Our founder read an excerpt from at the live reader. For more about the contest and what PEN does, visit pen.org.
by Benito Gutiérrez, Valley State Prison in California
Thirty-six-year-old Angel Guerra took a long pull from his cigarette and leaned back against the parking pylon in front of Pete’s Market, one foot tucked up behind him, the other planted securely on the ground.
He exhaled slowly, allowing the smoke to envelop the sides of his face, up past his ball cap dissolving into the night sky.
Bathed in a dim, fluorescent light with intermittent bursts of neon red from the flickering “OPEN” sign hanging in the window behind him, he is a wiry silhouette. Denim shorts, black hoodie, low top Chuck Taylors. A bandana hanging from his back pocket. Everything about him bespoke the gangster.
His square chin was covered in stubble, yet he appeared younger than his age. His green eyes had a thoughtful, intense look about them.
Out of the darkness a familiar figure approached, warily crossing the street toward him, now looking back over her shoulder, now anxiously biting her fingernails. She’s desperately clutching a 20 dollar bill in her tightly bound fist. Damp with sweat, it amounts to groceries for a week, or diapers for the baby. But instead . . .
“What’s up, Tosh?” Angel asked as the timid figure approached.
“Hey, Angel,” she replied, nervously scratching one arm. “Um . . . you got anything?”
“Yeah, sure Tosh. Hey, how’s Bobby doin’?”
They exchanged banal pleasantries then conducted their business in the adjacent alley before parting ways, mutually satisfied.
As Angel returned to his post, tucking the worn 20 into his front pocket, he spied his young homeboy Crook exiting the store.
Crook wore Jordan shorts and Air Maxes, a medallion hanging low from the chain around his neck. He approached Angel carrying a brown paper bag in the shape of a 40-ounce bottle.
The two converged and shook hands.
“What’s good, bro?” offered Crook.
“What’s up wit’ it?” Angel responded, taking a final drag off his cigarette and flicking the butt out into the street. “Whutchu sippin’ on?”
“Breakfast,” Crook replied.
Angel smiled knowingly. “Breakfast, huh? Yeah, I hear that.”
“Breakfast of champs,” Crook added before twisting the cap off the bottle and taking a swig. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and sighed contentedly. “Was that Tasha right now?”
“Yup,” Angel answered. “On a mission, too.”
“Heard she got raided last week, no?”
“What? She ain’t said nothin’ to me about it. You sure?”
Crook shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows. Maybe it was CPS. Shouldn’t be out here anyway. Got the kid at home . . . wait ‘til Bobby gets out.”
Angel thought about his own kids for a moment and wondered if they were warm in their little beds and dreaming. Then he thought about Tasha and perceived a fleeting sense of . . . something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Compassion? Remorse? But the notion soon passed and was easily forgotten.
The two drifted over toward the alley and squatted down beneath a vibrant mural dedicated to a fallen soldier. From this vantage point they were well hidden from the street, concealed in darkness.
“Rest in peace, Weasel homie,” Crook said as he poured a few sips of his drink onto the ground.
Angel acknowledged the sacred gesture with a solemn nod of approval. He fished in his pocket for another cigarette and lit it mechanically. The glow from the lighter’s flame briefly illuminated his face and cast distorted shadows in all directions.
“So wifey let you out the house tonight, huh?” Crook observed playfully.
“Whutchu mean ‘let me out’? Little homie . . .” Angel began incredulously, blowing a forceful stream of smoke from his lips ending in two perfect, floating rings. “I been doin’ this since you was rockin’ baby Jordans. Don’t get it twisted.”
“Okay, okay. My bad.”
“Psh, ‘let me out.’” Angel adjusted his ball cap low over his brow, tilted his chin up and smiled proudly. “I’m the captain of this vessel. Believe it.”
“Oh, I believe it,” Crook replied as he stood up and stretched his arms above his head, yawning. “‘Cause you been savin’ ‘em for reals! Captain!”
“Oh, you got jokes, you little . . .” Angel rushed Crook with a playful combination of jabs and punches, cigarette clenched tightly between his front teeth. “I got your captain right here, youngsta. Salute me then. Salute!”
“You’re lucky I got these new kicks on,” Crook said, deflecting the blows, feigning retreat.
The scuffle died down as quickly as it had started and monotony returned to the alleyway. The conversation then shifted between familiar topics of importance: Money, music, females, the game.
As Angel stood, indifferently listening to one of Crook’s spirited discourses on the various aspects of criminality, he suddenly perceived the sound of uneven footsteps approaching from the opposite end of the alley behind them. He turned, instinctively reaching for his waistband, anxious and alert.
Out of the darkness staggered a wretched looking vagabond, soiled and unsteady, visibly drunk and mumbling to himself incoherently.
Angel relaxed. “Hey Joe,” he called out to the approaching figure. “Loco Joe!”
The drunk stopped abruptly, glaring up at Angel, to Crook, and back again, clearly startled and suddenly aware of himself. “Youngsta,” he slurred then continued forward, his pace slower now, each step careful and deliberate.
“It’s me, Angel. Whutchu doin’ O.G.? Como estas?” Angel greeted the old timer as he neared. “How you been, man?”
Joe stood before him, swaying unsteadily. “I’m good, youngsta. I’m good—say man, you got a cig’rette?”
“Yeah sure, O.G. I got you.” Angel reached into his pocket and brought out his pack of smokes.
“O.G.?” Crook muttered under his breath. “This fool ain’t no gangsta . . .”
Joe looked intently at the box open before him. “’S your las’ one, mijo. You sure?”
“Yeah it’s good, Joe. Go ahead.”
Joe mumbled his thanks, took the cigarette and accepted a light from Angel. “Thank you, mijo. Thank you.”
Crook sighed, obviously irritated. “So you tryin’ to spend something old man, or what?”
“I got no money,” Joe said defiantly, sensing Crook’s hostility.
“Then whutchu doin’ standin’ around here for?” Crook said, snapping his fingers. “You got your handout. Come on now, do it movin’.”
“Hold up,” Angel intervened. “What’s wrong witchu, getting at the O.G. like that?”
“Whutchu mean ‘O.G.’? This fool’s a drunk!” Crook protested.
“You just ain’t knowin’ homie. This is gente right here. Johnny Castro and them’s uncle, right? And he was in Vietnam.”
“What’s that got to do with my pockets, though? Angel you ain’t makin’ no sense, homie.”
“Show this man respect is what I’m sayin’.”
“This bum? Psh . . .”
Loco Joe appeared to be unaffected by the insult. He was either used to it by now or just too drunk to care.
Angel turned to him and said, “You eat tonight, tio? Here . . .” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a five dollar bill from his stack of cash and held it out to Joe. “Go get some comida. Go ahead. Toma.”
“And you’re giving this fool paper? That’s like the opposite of what we’re doin’ out here! Knowin’he’s just gonna drink that up!”
“Alright Crook, homie. Kick back . . .” Angel warned.
Crook threw his hands up in disgust, dismissing the entire situation and turned to face the street.
“We take care of our own out here . . .” Angel continued. “What if it was your family? What if it was you?”
“That ain’t never gonna be me,” Crook said over his shoulder. “Know that.”
Joe wavered for a moment before finally reaching out and accepting Angel’s generosity. “Thank you, mijo,” he said. “‘S ‘preciated.”
“It’s good, Joe. Don’t even trip.”
It was a small thing, but Angel felt good about what he’d done. No ulterior motives. No strings attached. It was an act of empathy, compassion. Maybe he wasn’t all bad like people said he was. Maybe . . . he still had a chance to do something good with his life.
“Angel look!” Crook whispered excitedly.
Angel turned to face the street just as a primered old school Impala crept by at a low speed, passing the market then turning left on a side street a few blocks up. Its two occupants appeared to be looking for something, or someone, darting furtive glances in every direction.
“You know them fools?” Crook asked.
“Nah . . . but they ain’t from around here.”
“From the other side I bet. Fish and them dudes. Palabra, they come through again? I’m dumpin’.”
Angel nodded in agreement, knowing that whoever was in the car probably had the same thing in mind.
“Sixty-five Impala,” said Joe from behind them. “Sup’r Sport. I used to have one. When I came back. From Veetnam. Five hunrid dollars, I bought it.” He spread his fingers and gestured in Crook’s direction. “Got my ol’ job back, too. I was in the paper!”
“Man, ain’t no one tryin’ to hear all that,” Crook said with a dismissive wave of his hand. As he turned to walk away there suddenly appeared two beams of light coming from the far end of the alley. A vehicle was rapidly closing in on them, its headlights bouncing precariously, engine gunned and growing louder.
For a moment the three stood there, frozen and exposed. But they were quickly forced into action as two unmarked Crown Vics entered the mouth of the alley, sealing both ends from escape.
Cops no doubt. Lieutenant Ramos and his crew.
Angel took to the nearest fence and cleared with ease. He landed in a neighboring backyard, dark and unfamiliar, no time to worry about dogs. No looking back. He ran up past the side of the house, hopped over a gate and hid behind a Chevy Nova parked in the driveway. Seeing no lights in either direction, he quickly got up and raced to the other side of the street. He ran through someone’s carport, into their backyard, scaled a chain-link fence, and landed in an alley one block up from Pete’s market.
Here he stopped long enough to dump his stash beneath an old, soiled couch before continuing down the alley. He ran for a distance and then jumped a fence, crossing through another backyard, out into the street and beyond.
He repeated this process until he had put a good 10 blocks behind him, carefully following the alleyways in the direction of home.
“I need to quit smoking,” he admitted to himself as he lessened his pace, now slowing to a brisk trot.
Seeing headlights approaching the cross street up ahead, he pressed himself tightly against a fence and crouched behind a row of garbage cans. A vehicle stopped and pointed its spotlight in Angel’s direction, piercing the darkness with an intense beam of artificial light before moving on.
Angel remained in this position for a moment, catching his breath, mind racing.
I just have to make it home, he thought. A few more blocks. It’s nothin’. I do this all the time.
“All the time,” he repeated out loud. And how many more times after this? It’s getting old, he thought, shaking his head. I’m getting old. I mean, out here pushin’ crumbs? Hiding behind garbage cans?
He chastised himself often in this way. In fact, despite outward appearances, Angel was actually somewhat unsure of himself most of the time. But tonight it was as if a fog had suddenly been lifted, leaving the truth in plain sight.
He checked to see that the coast was clear and continued upon his journey, cautiously moving forward, mindful and alert.
I swear if I could just make it home, he promised. But what then? Lay low for a day or two? Relocate? No, that’s no good. There has to be another way.
I have to make things right, he said to himself. At least for the kids. Ah, my poor kids. Daddy loves you!
Angel exited the alley near the cross street on which he lived with his girlfriend and their two daughters. Deciding it was safe enough to venture out into the open, he quickened his pace and headed homeward, walking briskly along the gravel shoulder.
I could get my license and go work for my uncle, he continued. Or I could go back to school. Anything but this. I swear, I’m gonna do it this time.
Suddenly he remembered the book of devotionals he’d read while in prison. He liked Saint Augustine the best. What did it say? “How long shall I go on saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not make an end of it now?”
Or something like that.
Even then he’d felt the need to change his ways. But that was prison, right? Everyone made those kind of promises.
But now it was different. Now it all made sense. And there was no more time to waste.
Starting tomorrow—no, starting tonight. Right now! I’ma do things right, he swore. I’m gonna get a job. Cover these tattoos. I’m gonna get us outta here. Watch!
He thought of his girlfriend Anna.
You too, mija. I know it hasn’t always been a fairy-tale. But I do love you. What if we got married? Huh?
He laughed out loud, excited by the prospects before him. It was actually going to happen this time, wasn’t it? He could feel the difference. Never in his life had he been this certain.
His two bedroom shack of a house came into view. All the lights were off and Angel felt a pang in his heart, so much love for his girls, thankful they were safe and asleep.
Just then he sensed a sudden intrusion. Something wrong. A vehicle approaching from behind. But no lights? He turned and there creeping toward him was the primered 65, grim and obscure, its windshield reflecting a weak crescent moon.
He continued forward, tense and apprehensive, each hand balled into a fist deep within his pockets. How could I be so stupid, he thought. They caught me slippin’! And now what? There’s nothin’ I can do!
The Impala pulled alongside of him. “Say homie,” the driver called out. “Hey, you live around here?”
Angel kept his stride, ignoring the driver’s query. He could hear laughter coming from within the vehicle. And the faint sound of music.
“Hey! You deaf or what? I’m talkin’—oh, okay then . . .”
Angel figured his only chance was to pivot and run back in the opposite direction. But it was far too late. The sights had been trained upon him all along. Just as he turned to run he was struck by an unforgiving volley of rage and hostility.
The shots reverberated up and down the street, throughout the neighborhood, abruptly waking those nearby, ending pleasant dreams.