The Long Walk Back Home, Chapter Ten

“Well, you always did know how to get yourself into a world of trouble and then back out of it!”  Sonny Russinko shook his head in admiration as Chris told him what had happened in the week since he had last seen him.  The two friends were sitting in the sand at La Jolla Shores, their backs against a concrete seawall that protected somebody’s beachfront home from the occasional extreme high tide.  A road leading to the beach was no more than twenty feet from Chris’ left elbow, and two blocks up that road was a convenience store from which they could replenish their supplies if they ran out of beer.

It was a cool morning for San Diego at that time of the year.  The ‘June Gloom’ of thick fog that would frequently keep the city wreathed in a wet grayness usually began in April and ended by the coming of July.  This year the pattern came and went at random, and on this particular morning the air was thick and wet.  Chris and Sonny had on only light jackets, so they had lit a fire with driftwood scrounged off of the beach.

“It’s not something that I went looking for” Chris replied.  “I just wanted to have dinner with a friend.  I didn’t know that just being an Indian could get people to want to kick your ass.”

Sonny took a swig of beer and stared into the fire for a minute.  Then said “Yeah, if you’re different from the crowd, life can be rough.”  Chris looked at him quizzically, and then Sonny continued.  “I know a little bit about those things.  My folks came here from Poland a couple of years before I was born.  Dad was a weird combination of poet and mathematician.  He said that the two things were a natural match, but I never really figured out how that could be.

Anyway, he got out of Poland a couple of years after the end of World War II.  I don’t know how the heck he did it but he did, and he got his family out too.  Poets were a dime a dozen back then, but the ‘New Socialist Society’ needed its mathematicians.  He never spoke much about that, but he got out and made it to America.  He settled in Cleveland, and that is where I remember living before we came here.

We didn’t live in a Polish neighborhood.  Dad said that we had left Poland behind and he wanted to make a clean break of it.  He still loves his home country and he’s proud of being Polish, and he had a lot of friends in the Polish community, but we lived in the general mix of Cleveland.  Sometimes it could be hard to be a Pollock kid there.”

“I have a hard time seeing you getting picked on” Chris stated.  Sonny was a big man; even larger than Calvin.

“I wasn’t always this big” Sonny continued.  “I was short and sort of pudgy, really.  I heard a lot of Pollock jokes, took a lot of teasing and bullying at school, and learned the hard way that it wasn’t safe to go to the local playground and mix with the other kids.  It would be alright for a while, but sooner or later some kid that I knew from school, or maybe one that I didn’t even know at all, would come along and yank my shorts down, or spit on me, or just punch me out.

“Shit, man.  You never said anything about this before.”

“A guy likes to forget that sort of thing.  Or at least tries to store it away so that you don’t have to look at it all the time.”

“And they did this just because your parents were Polish?”

“Uh huh.”  Sonny took another drink from his beer and looked out across the ocean.

“And this is why your family moved to San Diego?”

“No, not directly.  About the beginning of the eighth grade I began to grow up.  I was just over six feet tall by the end of that year and the fat turned into muscle.  I begged Dad to get me some weights.  He did, and I worked out every day.  By the end of the ninth grade I’d evened a lot of scores.

About that time Dad got an offer to come and teach at the UCSD campus and he thought that sounded like a good deal.  He didn’t like the way that things were going with me and he was tired of the winters in Cleveland too, so out we came.”

“Man, I didn’t know any of that.  You and Calvin might have a lot to talk about”

“Yeah, maybe.  Hey, look out there.  What’s that?”  Sonny was pointing towards two black dots in the water about two hundred feet from the surf line.  The dots appeared to be moving towards the beach.  Soon another dot appeared, and then two more. “That’s divers” he said.  “They’re coming out of the water.”

And indeed, a party of six divers in black wet suits and with snorkels stepped out of the surf and began to walk towards Chris and Sonny.  One of the figures was walking clumsily, with two others helping him along.  The figures walked up to Chris and Sonny and asked “Can we borrow your fire?  Chuck here has some hypothermia going on.”

“Sure” Sonny replied.  “Here, sit on this blanket.”

“I’ll be glad to borrow your blanket” the man said.  “But it would be better used to wrap around our friend.”

“Sonny gave him his blanket while Chris threw more wood on the fire.  “I’ll go and get some hot coffee for you” Chris offered, and the shivering man agreed eagerly.  Two of the divers left to return to their cars and pick up the rest of their party.  Chris and Sonny meanwhile walked up to the store and bought four cups of coffee.  They continued their conversation while they accomplished that task.

“So, me and Calvin are going to drive out to the Rez and pick up his truck this weekend.  You want to come with us?”

“Huh, I’ve never been out there.  Yeah, I’m not doing anything in particular.  I thought you said that his truck doesn’t run.”

“It doesn’t.  Calvin’s mother has a friend with a truck that we can use.  He’ll rent a tow bar and pull it to my place.  My dad’s offered to check it out and see what it needs.  He’s really gotten into working on cars while I’ve been gone.”

They bought the coffees and then returned to the beach.  The two divers that had left had not returned yet.  The three divers who had remained with their cold friend were surprised when they received coffees too.  They offered to pay for them as soon as their departed friends returned with their belongings, but Chris and Sonny declined.  “It’s nothing.  Don’t worry about it.  We’re going to be taking off now anyway.”

The cold diver began to remove the borrowed blanket but Sonny told him not to.  “It’s Army surplus” he explained.  “I can get another one for two or three bucks.  You go ahead and keep it.”  Chris and Sonny were thanked profusely, and then they took their cooler with its remaining beers and drove away.

“So, you’ve patched things up with Jackie?” Sonny asked as Chris navigated through La Jolla, towards Pacific Beach and the freeway on ramp at the end of Grand Ave.

“Yeah, sorta” Chris replied.  “At least she’s not swinging at me.  She got really busted up over Tom’s death.  They were engaged; did I tell you that?”  Sonny shook his head in the negative.  “It’s a fact.  Her little sister, Pam, told me.  You remember her?”

“Yeah, just a little.  I didn’t see her around much back when we were in high school, but I knew that Jackie had a sister.”

“Well, she’s a pretty smart kid, and she’s helped a lot to work things out between us.”

“You always had the hots for Jackie.  You thinking about picking that up again?”

“No, definitely not.  It’s pretty clear that she still doesn’t like me much.  In fact, I didn’t know until recently how much she didn’t like me back in the old days.  I’m mostly into this for Tom’s sake, although – – -.”

Chris paused at that point, thinking about what to say next.  Sonny didn’t feel like waiting too long to hear what was on Chris’ mind though.  “Although what?”

“Uh, well, I think I’m kinda attracted to Pam.”

“Really!  So, if you can’t have one Olsen girl you’ll take the other?”

Chris punched Sonny in the shoulder and said “No, man.  It’s not like that.  She really is a cute girl, and a smart kid too.  I guess I should stop calling her a kid.  But she’s really trying to help her sister, and she seems like a sweet person.”

Sonny began to hum and pretend to be playing a violin, which drew another punch in the shoulder.  “Screw you” Chris growled.  “Just because no girl that doesn’t have calluses on her knuckles would look at you!”  Now it was Sonny’s turn to punch Chris in the shoulder.  “Hey, watch it man.  I’m driving!”

“Chris merged onto Interstate 8 and began the drive to East San Diego.  Sonny spoke again about the plan to retrieve Calvin’s truck.  “So, are you worried about being hassled by anyone if you go back into the east county?”

“I’m not too worried.  It could happen, but probably won’t.  I talked with Calvin yesterday and he said that his uncle asked around.  One of the punks who jumped us is Hunter Carlson.  He’s the son of the guy that owns a big turkey ranch on Dehesa Road.  He’s rich as shit, so his kid likes to lord it over a lot of people.  It turns out that most people don’t like him, so nobody wants to back him up.  Calvin’s uncle doesn’t know who the other two were, but thinks that nobody really likes them either.  Unless we run right into them, I don’t think that there’ll be trouble.

“That’s good.  I’d hate to see your pretty face take on any more black and blue.  Of course, maybe that would make Pam want to nurse you back to health.”

Sonny lurched against the passenger door and deflected an incoming punch aimed at the shoulder.  Chris blushed a little but also laughed.  “I’m going to have to take you to the zoo and get you a girl friend if I’m going to have any peace.”

Sonny laughed and then once again picked up the conversation.  “So, you said that you guys were going to have some kind of meeting?”

“Yeah.  We’re going to meet at The Spear’s Point next Saturday.”  Sonny’s blank look told Chris that he had no idea what the Spear’s Point was.  “It’s a kind of a student hangout right next to the State campus.  Pam says it’s where the smart kids go.  I guess the jocks and the frat rats go somewhere else.  She says the staff will enforce at least some kind of behavior rules there.”

“Sounds like a stone drag to me.”

“Yeah, well, some people have an IQ higher than room temperature.”  It was Chris’ turn to lurch away from a punch, and in doing so he pulled the steering wheel to the left causing the car to swerve in its lane.  “Come on man.  You wanna get us in a wreck?”

“Whah, whah, whah.  Shut up and continue.”

“OK.  Well, this place is usually quiet and Pam says – – -.”

“Pam says, Pam says – – -” Sonny said in a sing-song voice.

Chris sighed and continued.  “Pam says that it’s not going to be real crowded in the summer and it will be a good place to talk, or at least Pam says that Jackie says that.  We’re going to talk about Tom and try to help Jackie get a grip on his death.  Calvin knew Tom well over in The Nam and he can fill in a lot of what his last months were like.  I don’t know how that’ll help, really, but I’m going to give it a try.  Shoot, I’d invite you to come along but Jackie and Pam usually speak with words containing more than one syllable.”

“Yeah, that leaves me out” Sonny said.  “But say ‘Hi’ to her for me.  Jackie was always nice to me and I wasn’t used to that, coming from a smart and beautiful girl.  She was pretty special.”

“Yeah, I’ll tell her.”

“So when are you towing Calvin’s truck back to town?”

“Sunday.  After church we’ll drive out and hitch it up.”

“Church?  You done gone and got ‘lidgin?”

“No” Chris said with a chuckle.  “Calvin goes to church and hey, he’s a pretty cool guy, so I guess he can do what he wants.”

“Just as long as he doesn’t go throwing holy water on me.  I’m a vampire you know.”

“So what’re you doing in the sunlight?”

“I’m a hybrid.  Even vampires in San Diego need to get a good tan to have any social status.  Hey, you got any other plans for today?”

“Nope.  I’m just sort of laying low and staying out of the sun.”

Sonny looked out the window at the sullen, gray sky and said “I don’t know what sun you’re talking about.  But anyway, why don’t we drive up to the Reservation where the truck is?  You can show me where all of this shit went down.”

“What, are you crazy?  My last trip up there wasn’t exactly a church picnic.  I said that the chances of running into those clowns was small, but it’s still a chance.  I don’t know if I want to take it.”

“Come on man.  Nobody’s going to be looking for you.  Heck, the last place that they would expect to find you is right where they live.”

‘Aw, I don’t know.  I’m glad that I got out of there alive.”

“Well, if you really don’t want to do it, that’s cool.  No pressure.  So, what else do you want to do today?”

Chris thought about Sonny’s suggestion, and also thought about the fact that he had absolutely nothing else to do on this day.  Sonny actually did make sense when he said that they wouldn’t expect for him to go right back to where the trouble happened.  In fact, Chris had wanted to go and retrieve his belongings from the Jacumba Hotel, and this might be his best chance to do so.

“OK, maybe you’re right” he said.  I left some stuff at the hotel up there.  Maybe we can go and get that.  I’ll swing by the house and get a long sleeve shirt and a hat.  The doctor said that the antibiotics that I’m on could make my skin susceptible to a bad burn, and I don’t need any more pain just now.”

“Sounds fine to me” Sonny replied.  They exited the freeway at 43rd Street and drive the short distance to the Pierce house.  Chris got his shirt and Chuck’s straw hat and soon they were pointed east on the Interstate.  An hour later they were at the hotel.  His clothes had been stuffed into his suitcase, which had not yet been mailed to the address listed on his registration.

“OK” the clerk said as she recognized Chris.  “We didn’t expect you to come back, or at least not so soon.  The suitcase is in the office.  Wait here a minute.”

Chris fidgeted as he waited for the clerk to reappear with his property.  Was she calling the police?  Was she calling Hunter Carlson?  Heck, for all he knew she was engaged to Hunter Carlson or one of his flunky friends.  After a minute Chris turned to Sonny and was about to say “This was a stupid idea.  Let’s get out of here,” but before he could speak the clerk emerged from the office with his suitcase.  “Thank you” Chris mumbled as he turned to leave.

“Mr. Pierce” the clerk said as he turned, and he looked back and faced her.  “Mr. Pierce, we heard about what happened at Sadie’s last Friday, and we guessed that you were involved.  I just want to tell you that a lot of people feel like Hunter had it coming, and his friends did too.  I want you to know that not everyone out here is a jerk like them.  All the same, I would keep looking over your shoulder while you’re here.  Hunter got it worse than the others and, I don’t know, well, the story was that, uh, well, that one of you peed on him.”  The clerk blushed as she said that, and then continued.  “Well if that’s true, I don’t know anyone out here who deserves it more than he does.”

Chris didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded to her and left.  He and Sonny returned to his car, fired up the engine and pulled out of the parking lot and onto old U.S. 80.  “You pissed on him?”  Sonny asked.

“Well, I might have gotten a little carried away” Chris replied.

“Holy shit!  That’s cold, man.  I mean, it sounds to me like he deserved it.  You probably should have taken a dump on him too.  But phew!  He’s going to be looking for a little paybacks for that one, I’d guess.  You’d probably better be looking over your shoulder while you’re in town, too.”

They drove past Sadie’s and Sonny asked “You wanna go in for a little lunch?”

“Shit!  No way!” Chris replied.  “This is crazy enough as it is. There ain’t no way in hell that I’m poking that bear again.”

“For all you know you could be a hometown hero, man.  They might even buy you a round and give you a free lunch.  Might give me one too.”

“They might give us a knuckle sandwich and boot in the teeth.  Uh-uh.  Nope.  Not happening.”

“Ok, ok.  Don’t get your undies all bunched up, you wuss.  Just show me where the truck is.

A short distance past Sadie’s Chris recognized the turnoff to the road that led into the Campo Reservation.  He saw the brown, bullet-riddled sign that he had seen in his headlights four days earlier announcing his entrance to the Rez.  Chris drove up the two lane road, remembering that he did not turn off of that road until they had arrived at the driveway of Calvin’s uncle’s single wide.  He drove slowly, looking to the left for the trailer and it’s driveway.

Along the road they looked at the poverty and despair that was so evident on the Rez in the light of day.  Decomposing trailers, shacks that looked ready to fall over, and stucco houses that seemed to be returning to the elements from which they were constructed seemed to be the norm.

“Shit, man.  This is depressing” Sonny said as they crept along.

“Yeah, Calvin told me that the people here had their hearts torn out by what they’ve lost over the last two hundred years.”

“Yeah, that’s a bad story, for sure.  But shit, man.  How can you live like this?”

“Calvin says that this is all that they have left.  His people look at the nice farms and ranches around the county and remember that they are on land that was once theirs.  They’ve been left with the most marginal of land and been told to provide for themselves using what they’ve got.  They mostly make it on what the government will give them, which isn’t much, and the only way out is to quit being an Indian and move to the cities.”

“Well shit.  Then I’d quit being Indian if it came to this.”

“Did your father quit being Polish?”  Chris asked.  “I’m not trying to argue with you but really, did your father give up being Polish just to get along?”

Sonny thought about that for a while, and then replied “No.  Dad never quit being Polish.  He wanted to be American, but he was never ashamed of being Polish.  And I’m not ashamed of being Polish either.”

“Well, then, I guess it’s something like that.  These folks seem to be satisfied, determined or resigned to being Indians, even if it means living like this.  Heck, maybe it’s a combination of the three; I don’t know.  But you know what?  I think that maybe I admire them for that.  Even Calvin’s uncle, who hates the ground that I walk on.”

“Hmm” Sonny mumbled thoughtfully as he looked out the window at the ramshackle houses and trailers that they passed.  At last they passed a wood frame house on the right and a scruffy, tan dog raced out and chased them down the road.  Chris remembered that a dog had erupted out of the night and then merging back into it just before he and Calvin had arrived at his uncle’s driveway.  He slowed down even more and looked intently to the left.  In another minute he saw the single wide and the old, weathered garage that housed Calvin’s two vehicles.

“There” he pointed with his chin.  “There it is.”


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