Fiction by David K. Slay
Soon after retiring, Russell began riding a bike to the beach in the town where he lived. The bike was a relic of his daughter’s adolescence, long ago rejected by her as hopelessly uncool and left to gather dust in the garage. He had found it behind a set of faded rattan patio furniture and other discards from summers past. He was encouraged by how well it responded to being cleaned and lubricated, and he adopted it knowing Megan wouldn’t care. She lived and worked in a distant city, and now drove a sporty Japanese coupe. The bike was sturdy and had knobby tires, a carrier mounted over the rear wheel, and short, compact handlebars. Using a bungee cord, he secured a cardboard box to the carrier, and several times a week he would fill an empty Coke can with a medium-priced Chardonnay, take several magazines, a light jacket, and peddle to the shoreline. He knew he should wear a helmet, but allowed himself this bit of recklessness.
The small coastal town had a pier extending from the middle of the beach, with a parking lot at its base. A small bluff rose from there, providing a grassy knoll with garden benches overlooking the lot, the beach, and the blue Pacific beyond. Russell enjoyed going down about an hour before sunset, sitting on one of the benches and sipping his wine while leafing through magazines. No matter what the inland temperature was, the ocean breeze always was fresh and cool, and sometimes scented with star jasmine. In particular he made a point of watching the last glimmer of sun slip beneath the horizon.
On hot days the beach town was a popular destination for people who lived in the parched outskirts east of Los Angeles, places like Pico Rivera and El Monte. Many of the visitors looked Hispanic—Mexican-Americans he assumed. Whole families would arrive in large run-down vans with missing hubcaps, and brown children of all ages would tumble out and run to the sand, while overweight moms and dads lugged battered ice chests, bedspreads, and beach umbrellas after them. Young Hispanic males would arrive in brightly colored lowered cars with tinted glass, vintage wheels, and maybe a dedication lettered on the rear window: “In memory of Ruben…,” or “Joker,” with dates from to. They would back into a stall and hang out in the parking lot, slouching around their cars in loose khakis, black Converse All Stars, and clean white T-shirts.
One time while Russell was idly watching such a group below, someone joined him on the next bench over. He also had a bicycle but Russell was startled to see what looked like a Hispanic male in gang-related garb. And the bike was nothing like Russell’s. The frame had been cut apart and reassembled in the style of a chopper motorcycle, with the front fork extended at a radical angle, raised handlebars, lowered banana seat and wheels with extra spokes. The handlebars held dual rear-view mirrors, and black leather tassels hung from the grips. Almost every part of the bike had been chromed, and it sparkled and shimmered in the amber side-light of the waning sun.
Russell looked down at the youths in the lot, and he didn’t think they were gang members. Too young, too clean-cut and not very menacing-looking. Ranchera AM radio music with its polka beat and the chatter of a Spanish-speaking DJ drifted up. Two of the teens were laughing and circling and jabbing at each other in mock fist fighting.
Like everyone else, Russell had heard about gang bangers over the years in South L.A.—Bloods, Crips, drive-by shootings, crack. But those were Black gangs and the Hispanics seemed different. But fear of gangs in any form was pumped up nightly by the local TV news stations. Most reports concluded with the grim pronouncement, “Police suspect gang involvement.”
Russell discretely studied his neighbor, never before having been so close to a likely gang member. He wore a gray sleeveless sweatshirt with ragged armholes and dark pants that ended between his knees and ankles. He was older than expected, maybe even pushing 40. Tattoos were everywhere, not only on his arms, but the sides of his neck, his calves, and on his left finger, where a ring would be. Pockmarks left over from bad acne were visible and the only facial hair was a black tuft jutting from his chin. At one point the man stood and looked over the edge of the rise to the lot below. Then he flipped open a cell phone and made a short call. He listened briefly, said something quietly and then closed the phone.
It occurred to Russell he could attempt some conversation with the man. They could talk about bikes, maybe, as they seemed to have this hobby in common. He wondered how far the man had ridden to get to the beach. Maybe he had lost his driver’s license. Or maybe he’d learn what’s it’s like to be in a gang. He had read articles in magazines about how a gang could be a kind of family in which one could earn respect. He appreciated the values of family and respect. Who doesn’t want to be respected?
His reverie was interrupted by something happening in the parking lot below. Two city police cars had corralled the young men and their car. Red and blue lights pierced the soft ambience of the dusk. One of the cops had them emptying their pockets on the hood of the car while two others watched with hands on hips. His partner rummaged through the car’s interior and then placed two six-packs of Carta Blanca on the roof. Most of the bottles were empty. Then they made the youth sit on the asphalt with their backs against the retainer wall, hands clasped behind their heads. It looked like they would be arrested and taken away.
Russell glanced at the tattooed man, who also had been watching the scene unfolding below. “That really pisses me off,” he said.
The man looked at Russell.
Russell’s chest tightened, but he continued. “Those fellows weren’t doing anything terrible down there,” he said. “Seems like the cops are always after you guys.”
“You guys,” the man said.
“Well, you know…”
The man continued staring at him.
“It’s just—I thought maybe you’d have some sympathy for them, that’s all.”
The man lit a cigarette, slowly exhaled, and gazed out at the darkening ocean.
“I called the police,” he said.
Russell fumbled opened a magazine, but it was getting too dark to make out the words. The wine was not sitting well in his stomach. After what he thought was an appropriate length of time, he put on his light jacket and peddled home. On the way back, he realized he had missed the instant the sun slipped beneath the horizon.
David K. Slay is a new “older” writer. After retiring from full-time work, he completed two years of consecutive short story writing workshops, primarily in the UCLA Writers’ Program. He is interested in writing and publishing short literary fiction that can spark self-awareness within readers, or that reveals something true about human nature. His first published story appeared in the 6th annual issue of Gold Man Review, and another can be found in Flumes Literary Journal. He lives in Seal Beach, California.