A short story by
He thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Behind her head, the sun setting over Pierce College gave her highlighted Afro a weird halo. A black rose tattoo stared at him from the golden skin of her left arm. Black and gold. His favorite color combination.
“So,” he said, “Which test are you taking?”
She glanced over at him, her eyes in darkness with the sun glistening on her shoulder above the black tank top. “What?” she said.
They were sitting on opposite ends of a bench on a porch in front of the testing room at West Valley Occupational Center, which was across the street from Pierce College. The sign on the door said testing started at 6:30. She and he were both half an hour early because of the bus schedule. He had seen her on the bus, but he wasn’t gonna ask her about that. Only losers rode the bus. He wasn’t gonna call her out as a fellow loser.
He smiled, the sun on his face. “I said, what test are you taking?”
“A blood test,” she said. “I’m getting married next week.” With that, she looked down at her phone, her sandaled foot swinging in the air. Her legs were plump and smooth, her shorts very short. He guessed she was lying, because who looks that sexy if they’re planning to get married? And of course, she was pulling his chain about the blood test. Here they only gave reading and math tests at 6:30, and certainly not blood tests, ever. After all, this wasn’t a clinic. This was an occupational center, which offered free or very cheap classes to people like him, people who had nowhere else to go.
Erick Santamaria had done two years at the state prison in Tehachapi for growing 200 marijuana plants in his uncle’s warehouse. He’d been sentenced to six, but with the legalization of pot, and with the severe overcrowding in California’s state prisons, a judge had reduced his sentence to time served. Nonetheless, he was still on parole, and his arrest, conviction and imprisonment had totally fucked up everything with his uncle, who was named as a co-conspirator with intent to distribute. Things had already been bad with Erick’s parents and siblings – who had stopped talking to him when he refused to go to their Pentecostal church – but when Uncle Carlos turned against him in court with testimony and a plea bargain, Erick suddenly felt like the most worthless, lonely piece of shit in the universe, especially at Tehachapi, where he was gang-raped by a bunch of white bikers who called him their bitch.
Finally he gathered the courage to ask the girl: “Seriously, what test are you taking? En serio.” At his use of Spanish, she gave him a sharp glance.
She had a faint Spanish accent: “Seriously, it’s not your business.”
He said, “Sorry, just trying to be friendly.”
She just looked at her phone, which was vibrating and lighting up. She put it to her ear and said, “Si?”
There was a faint burst of an older woman’s Spanish through the phone. The girl said, “Mama, te dije, esta bien. Tiene que dormir.” (Mom, I told you, it’s OK. She has to sleep.)
There was a minute of quiet back and forth, then she said, “Te quiero tambien,” and hung up.
Erick said, “Is your baby sick?”
Her eyes were daggers: “I said, it’s not your business.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I wanna be a paramedic, so read a lot about medical stuff, and I helped take care of my older brother’s kids. He’s a paramedic. He says the pay is pretty good, and he likes it.”
Her attitude seemed to soften a little. Erick could tell she was listening.
“If your baby’s sick, you’re probably right – the best thing is rest. Does he have a fever?”
“Does she have a fever?”
“One oh three.”
“That’s pretty normal for a baby. Not to worry, unless she’s coughing a lot. Does she have a rash?”
“Just a little diaper rash.”
“That’s normal, too. Like you were saying, best thing is probably stay home and rest, lots of water, stay warm….”
She listened and nodded begrudgingly.
“I’m Erick,” he said.
“Suzy,” she said.
He extended his hand, but she wasn’t looking at him. He could tell she’d been through a lot. Maybe more than he had. If she was getting married and she already had a baby, well….
“Mind if I sit here?”
The man’s question wasn’t for him. He looked up and saw a head-shaved, gangster-looking Latino guy in white wife-beaters eyeing Suzy hungrily. She seemed to like the attention; her foot waved in the air like a flag.
The gangster-looking guy sat between Suzy and Erick with a cocky smile. He smelled strongly of Eternity for Men. The elaborate multi-colored tattoo on his left shoulder, staring at Erick, was a grim reaper skeleton with a crown of thorns and a big sickle. The guy was asking Suzy her name and shaking hands with her as she told him. He said, “I’m Antonio. Guys call me Tonio.” He held her hand. “Nice grip,” he said. “You work out?”
“The one on Reseda.”
“Oh, that one sucks. You should come to mine, on Ventura.”
“You own it?”
“Yeah,” he chuckled loudly, “No, but I go there every day. It’s like I own the place. Everybody kisses my ass.” He chuckled again, louder.
She looked down at her phone.
He said, “I act like I own the place.”
She said, “You act like you already own this place, too.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Wherever I go, same thing. People see me comin’, they step aside.” With that he gave Erick a sideways glance that awoke a deep, hot anger inside him.
She seemed to be getting annoyed with Tonio now. He had stepped over some kind of weird line and her red flag was up; Erick could tell, because her foot was bobbing more violently now, kind of like, “Get the fuck away from me, you egotistical creep.”
But Tonio wasn’t getting the message. “You come here a lot?”
“Good. This place is for losers. I go to Pierce, across the street. I only came here because I saw a hot mama sitting over here in the loser section. Thought she might need some help crossing the street.” With that, Tonio gave Erick a prison stare. Like, “What are you gonna do, bitch?”
Erick stared right back at him. He hated this guy, and wanted to fuck him up, but if he had learned anything in prison, it was to pick your fights carefully, because your life depends on it.
Tonio’s mocking smile turned uglier. “How ‘bout you? You go to this loser school? You a loser?”
Erick said nothing, just stared furiously.
“Oh, I get it. You like Suzy here. Good choice, but I don’t think she likes you. Otherwise, why’s she sitting way over there on the right side of the bench and here you are, way over on the left side. But she likes me just fine, don’t you, Suzy?”
She was looking at her phone.
Tonio put his hand on her thigh. “Don’t you, Suzy?”
She stared daggers at him. He leaned closer to her, sliding his hand up her thigh towards her crotch. She pushed it off. He put it back and kept pushing.
“No,” said Suzy, pushing Tonio’s hand away again, but Tonio put it back again, sliding it up between her legs while his other hand pulled down her tank top strap and revealing half a white breast. She pulled the strap back up.
“Come on,” Tonio was saying, “Show me some chiche. I know you like me.”
Erick stood up in front of Tonio. “Leave her alone.”
Immediately Tonio got to his feet and faced Erick, eye to eye. “You gonna make me?”
“She’s getting married,” Erick said.
“That’s right,” said Suzy, typing something frantically on her phone.
But Tonio wasn’t paying attention to her anymore. Now it was all about Erick. “Don’t I know you? Yeah, I remember. You were in Tehachapi. You were a bitch for the white bikers.”
Erick said nothing.
Tonio said, “That’s right, you were their bitch, and now you’re my bitch.”
With that, he gave Erick a hard shove and sent Erick staggering backward, and the porch railing hit his butt and he was flying backwards for a moment before his head exploded in white light.
Two years later, he following news story appeared on page three of the San Fernando Valley News:
MARTYR FOR JUSTICE: Deadly altercation leads to gangland conviction
MISSION HILLS – On Sunday afternoon, Rosa Inchaurregui laid flowers at the grave of Erick Santamaria, whose death two years ago led to Friday’s conviction of Antonio “Tonio” Pacheco. Santamaria died of massive head trauma after a confrontation with the longtime gang member at West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills. Surveillance video from the occupational center proved to be key evidence in Pacheco’s trial.
Rosa Inchaurregui had accused Pacheco of aggravated rape, for which Pacheco stood trial three years ago; that trial ended in a hung jury, among allegations of jury tampering and the intimidation of witnesses. The case gained headlines when the beauty salon where Rosa worked in San Fernando was sprayed with gunfire. In the past, Pacheco had also been named as a suspect in several murder cases, including the killing of three gang rivals at a birthday party, and a drive-by shooting that killed an elderly grandmother and two children. In every case, Pacheco escaped conviction due to hung juries.
At the time of the incident at West Valley Occupational Center, Pacheco was enrolled in Pierce College while on parole after serving prison time for an assault conviction. According to witnesses, he had stopped at West Valley Occupational Center to talk with an unnamed female student waiting for a reading test. When Pacheco began touching the female student sexually, Erick Santamaria rose to her defense, but was pushed over a porch railing by Pacheco, who then repeatedly kicked and stomped Santamaria on the head, leading to his death. The entire incident was captured by a hidden closed-circuit security camera in front of the testing room. Footage from that camera proved to be key in Pacheco’s conviction.
Erick Santamaria was no stranger to crime or violence; he had served time for marijuana cultivation at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, where he was reportedly gang-raped. He was at West Valley Occupational Center waiting to be tested for an Emergency Medical Technician class.
For Rosa Inchaurregui, Erick Santamaria is more than just a hero. “I call him ‘Saint Erick,’” she said. “He stood up to that horrible man, and made the world a better place.”