by Chris Creed
At fifteen, Junior Gomez was proud to work in El Chico’s Mexican restaurant. Junior’s mother, Juanita, had been working in the restaurant for a few years as a cook and had gotten Junior the job. With his slick-backed hair and big childish grin, he was her “Chico.” That’s what she called him. Someday, they joked, he would own the restaurant because of the coincidence of her nickname for him.
During the lunch rush Junior bussed tables at a furious pace while he ate lots of free food, eyeballed the many attractive women, and slowly worked his way from sober to drunk on margarita leftovers he collected in a cup stashed in his bus tub.
During their shift break, Junior slept off the margarita buzz in his mother’s 1976 Mercury Cougar while his mother sat in the bar eating and watching telenovelas. It didn’t matter that she was never up to date on the storylines.
As they crossed paths heading into the kitchen to get back to work, Junior asked, “Mama, you watch anything good?”
She smiled and blushed.
“No Mijo, just the same old stories.”
Junior loved to see her very rare smile and had much respect for his mother. She came from a tough life, worked hard, and was a buffer between him and his abusive, currently absent father.
The evening shift always seemed to go a little faster. Maybe because of the dimmed lighting or busier pace, with only a few more hours to go, Junior’s focus was already on what he was going to do after work. Find Black Nick and get high.
Exhausted and relieved the long shift was over, Junior and Juanita filled up their to-go cups with Coca Cola and clocked out for the day. Junior loved that first glimpse of his mother’s car sparkling under the bright parking lot lights. He spent several hours a week polishing and shining it, dreaming of the day it would be a fully customized lowrider. As he started the car, the stereo and air conditioner came blasting on. Immediately, his mother pressed the eject button on his Too Short cassette. Even though she could not understand the lyrics, she did not like rap music. Rolling down her window, Juanita tuned the radio dial to her favorite Tejano station and looked over at Junior disappointed.
“How many times have I asked you not to smoke in the car?” she asked, as she looked for ashes or burns in the seats.
“I was hoping that having the windows down would have taken care of it,” Junior said, with a guilty look on his face. “I didn’t have a lot of time and it was so hot outside. I should have turned off the air conditioner, but I promise I was careful.”
“Do not smoke in my car, cigarettes or weed, it doesn’t matter.”
“Yes ma’am,” was all he could say as he drove home.
As they pulled into their neighborhood, Junior eyed the activity down the street to see if anyone was at Black Nick’s house. The usual group. A few guys kneeling down shooting dice, while others were hanging out drinking. Junior wanted to get over to Nick’s house pretty quick. After he did a few chores, Junior told his mom he was going to walk to the store, but before he could get out the door, he heard his sister yell, “Junior!”
He walked back to her bedroom and stuck his head in the doorway.
“You think you’re so slick, dumbass? I found this in the bathroom trash and I know it’s yours.” She held up the orange cap to a hypodermic needle. “What the fuck, are you doing heroin now?”
Junior stepped inside her room and gently shut the door. “Anna, calm down, and don’t tell Mom. It’s for my back; it helps with the pain.”
She stared at him.
“Chapo told me about it and showed me how to do it. It’s not something I do a lot of. Remember that accident I had at work? It helps. I promise it’s not heroin, it’s cocaine. Some people snort it, some smoke it, but shooting it makes it better and it’s cheaper. Cousin Chapo was the first one to introduce me to it. You really think I want to stick myself with a needle? Of course not, but that’s how a doctor would do it.”
Her face softened. “Cousin Chapo said it’s cool?”
“Yeah, he suggested it and taught me how to do it.”
“Ok, I trust Chapo most of the time and I want to believe you.”
“It’s fine, I promise, but don’t tell Mama, ok? I’m going to the store, do you want anything?”
“Yeah, yeah, I won’t say anything. Buy me a sour pickle.”
“Orale,” was all he said and Junior escaped down the hall and out the door.
As he approached Nick’s house, the guys saw him coming and gathered up ready for a confrontation.
“Junior, what you know about Mono’s stereo getting stolen?” Nick asked.
“Come on, we know you always stealing, man.”
“Where you been? We ain’t seen you all day.”
“I been at work.”
“What highway are you selling oranges on?” someone in the back of the group mumbled.
“At least I got a job, when y’all’s welfare checks coming?”
“Go make us some burritos, puto!” someone else replied.
“Bend over, I’ll give you a burrito.”
“Swim back to Mexico, wetback!”
“At least I can swim, you big—”
“Yo!” Nick interrupted, “Y’all chill. Junior, Mono thinks you stole his stereo and he’s looking for you.”
“He knows where I live. Tell him if he needs a new deck, I can hook it up.”
“Ah man, see! Stealing ass beaner,” Trevor exclaimed.
“Shut up big lips, nobody talking to you—.”
“Yo! Y’all cut the shit! Junior, what you trying to get?” Nick didn’t care about Mono, he had his own business.
“A twenty, and five minutes with Trevor’s mom.” Everyone laughed, as Trevor flipped him off.
Junior handed Nick the money. With Nick’s nod of approval, Trevor reached into his car’s wheel well to get the dope and approached Junior. They stared into each other’s eyes with hate. Junior smirked fearlessly, as Trevor faked towards him like he might throw a punch, hoping to make him flinch. Junior didn’t budge.
The group laughed and taunted further, “Ohh, he ain’t scared of you, Trev!”
Junior held out his hand and Trevor dropped the small baggie into it. Junior put it in his pocket, turned away, and left without saying anything else.
“Tell your sister to call me, holmes!” Trevor yelled.
“She only likes men!” Junior shouted, without looking back.
About halfway home from the trip to the store, a car pulled up quickly beside Junior, almost hitting him. It was Trevor with Little Mike. Mike was in the passenger seat with the window down, facing Junior. Junior gave a silent “what’s up” nod of the head and stared at them.
Little Mike spoke nervously but stern. “Hey bitch, you better stay away from my sister.”
Trevor was silent, glaring from the driver’s seat with satisfaction.
“I am staying away from her, not because you said.”
“Because the cops said to, right? You know what? If they don’t get you, I will.”
“You ain’t gonna do shit. Get out of the car, I’ll break you both off right now.”
Mike responded by pointing a pistol at Junior’s face.
“What you gonna do? Oh, you quiet now, what happened? Come on fool, keep talking. Now you have nothing to say? Listen to me! Stay away from my sister, our house, and our family, and start giving her money to keep the baby. I don’t need the cops or that restraining order, those were my mom’s ideas.”
Trevor peeled out into the darkness and Little Mike fired a shot into the sky as they sped off.
Junior’s heart raced. He was sad, angry, and confused about Marissa’s pregnancy. Her mother was holding a statutory rape charge over him because Marissa, too, was only fifteen. Also, Marissa’s mother had recently filed a restraining order on him. Junior’s first love was lost, his heart was broken, freedom was at stake, and now his ego was crushed. Almost home, passing Nick’s house, someone yelled out at him again in a mocking Spanish accent, “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” Without looking up, he flipped them off and continued home.
His house did not have central air conditioning, so they kept bedroom windows open and ceiling fans on in the summer. Junior took off his shirt and sat on the edge of his bed looking out the window. Inspecting the little baggie of crack in his hand, the summer’s warm air breezed through the room, but right then, everything felt too heavy.
How will I get revenge on Little Mark? Will I be able to work things out with Marissa and her parents, or do I even want to? Should I get high now or wait until tomorrow night, since I have to work tomorrow? It feels late but tomorrow might be worse, especially if Dad shows up.
After pulling the bed away from the wall and grabbing his stash box, Junior began taking inventory of his supplies. He was interrupted by a noise out in front of the house. Someone was crouched between a couple of cars parked on the street. Was it Mono or the cops? The cherry of a lit cigarette burning confirmed it was probably Mono. Slowly, Junior slid the stash box under the bed and, without taking his eyes off the street, reached under his mattress and drew out his loaded shotgun. Junior had sawed off the barrel himself, but he wasn’t very experienced or comfortable with guns. Still, comfortable or not, he refused to let Mono get the drop on him.
“Yeah I stole your stereo, bitch,” Junior whispered to himself as he raised the gun and aimed the best he could. It had happened about a week ago, they were at a party and all drunk. Mono had left his car unlocked and windows down. Junior was unable to resist that temptation and stole the stereo. Nervously, he put his finger on the trigger, patiently waiting for his target to become clear. A man stumbled out from between the cars, his cigarette dropping from his mouth as he was trying to zip up his pants.
“Pete, I almost smoked your ass! Goddamn it, man,” Junior said, relieved. Catfish Pete was usually wasted and tonight was no different. He was on his way to God knows where and just stopping to take a drunk piss between the cars parked on the street. Junior laid the gun on the bed and leaned back staring at the ceiling.
Heart still beating hard from pointing a loaded gun at a harmless neighborhood friend, Junior took the little baggie out again and emptied the crack rock onto a magazine cover. Slowly and methodically, he crushed it up, working into a fine powder. Next, he took out his syringe and spoon. Before he put the water and powder into the spoon, he searched for his lighter. Eventually, Junior found it in his work apron. Now fully prepared, he carefully shook the powder into the spoon, added a little water, and began to cook it into a liquid. Inserting the needle of the used syringe into the center of the liquid, like he was working with the finest of materials, he slowly drew the liquid up into the barrel. The smell, sight, and sounds all gave Junior a mouthwatering craving for this dose of freedom. Without the need of a tourniquet, he inserted the needle into the fat vein in the crook of his left arm. He gently pulled back on the plunger to confirm he was in the vein and smiled when he saw his own blood mix with the cocktail. Junior drew in a big deep breath and very slowly exhaled while pushing the shot into his bloodstream.
Quickly, he felt a rush like never before. His body flushed with heat and he felt short of breath. Panicking, Junior quickly stood up and then felt dizzy, nauseated, and sweaty. He sat back down on the edge of the bed and then crashed backwards into the pillows to catch his breath. He felt lighter, and more free than ever before, as he closed his eyes and whispered to himself, “Is this heroin or the best coke ever?” Freedom was what Junior was looking for and he found it.
He saw himself as a successful auto body shop owner. All of his friends were there and he was dressed nicely. The show room was beautiful and full of his favorite cars. Employees were working and customers were spending money, it was his dream come true. His mother was there carrying his son proudly. Everyone was enjoying Junior being a success. His ’76 Cougar was parked out front completely restored.
His receptionist paged him over the intercom in a sexy voice, “Junior, you have a phone call on line one.” In all the commotion inside the shop he was unable to respond and was frozen in place. “Junior, urgent call on line one,” she repeated.
His mother was trying to hand him his crying baby, just as Father barged in through the shop doors. “Junior, please, pick up the call on one,” the receptionist called louder.
Marissa walked into the lobby and was holding hands with Black Nick. The customers began destroying things and the receptionist was now yelling, “Junior, please! Call on line one.”
He was trapped in the large crowd, unable to get to the desk. The building was starting to physically shake as his mom and dad began fist fighting. Outside, he saw Mono and Pete getting out of a van, carrying guns. His sister Anna was also outside screaming and crying as she was pounding on the glass windows. He could not hear her words, only the violent pounding of her open hands against the glass. The receptionist screamed into the intercom. “Junior! Wake up! What the fuck! Please answer me! HELP!”
“Mama!! Wake up! Call 911!” Anna screamed. “Junior needs help!”
It was 3 A.M. when his sister found him. Junior wasn’t cold, but he was for sure dead, pale, foaming at the mouth, with the needle still in his arm. His normally tidy room was a mess. The shotgun was still on the bed, stashbox and its contents spread out, work clothes scattered across the floor, while his limp body lay over the bed.
His mother entered the room panicked. Juanita’s shrieks and cries for help could be heard by the crew still assembled in Nick’s driveway. Junior’s mother and sister tried desperately to revive him while they waited for help to arrive. The police and paramedics arrived and also attempted to revive him while his mother begged God for help. Junior was pronounced dead on the scene.
All the sirens and lights woke most of the neighbors. A short investigation ruled his death as an accidental overdose. Junior’s mother could not understand.
“I knew he smoked and drank, but had no idea he was using real drugs.” Then, her thoughts connected the dots and she yelled, “Pinche Miates!!”
Juanita charged out the front door, headed for Black Nick’s house. Only, Nick and his crew were standing in her yard with the onlookers.
“You killed my son!” she yelled in broken English while the police held her back. She tried to escape their restraint as she continued screaming and pointing at the group. “Mother fuckers, you killed my son. Killers! Fuck you all!”
“Yo! What Pocahontas talking ‘bout, we killed her son?” Nick was confused.
“Bitch need to learn English,” one of his boys replied.
Nick’s crew began to debate what happened.
“He probably killed himself.”
“Nah, Mono got him, over that stereo.”
“Mono don’t have the balls to pull the trigger.”
“What about Little Mark? They had words earlier—”
Nick interrupted, “I’ll tell you what happened, he killed himself over Marissa and that baby. That’s what happened.”
Trevor disagreed, “We would have heard the gunshot.”
“He probably hung himself or cut his wrist.”
“Yeah or ate some pills.”
Mrs. Gomez had been taken back inside as they agreed on what they thought had happened.
“Who knows, let’s roll before they try to pin it on us.”
“Yeah, fuck her, let’s go.”
The crowd outside dispersed quickly. Inside Mrs. Gomez sat on the couch with Anna as the coroner prepared to remove Junior’s body. The dimly lit living room echoed their sobs and prayers as Juanita’s candles to the saints flickered.
“He kept me sane, he was my strength, the man of the house and my protector. How are we going to make it without him, Mija? Why? Why would God take him so young?”
Anna, still in shock herself, had no answers to the questions and just held her mother close, repeating the same response, “I don’t know, Mom, we will figure it out.”
Mrs. Gomez asked for a moment alone with her son. Her tears collected on his bare chest. Her instinct was to wipe them away, but she stopped her hands in midair and clasped them together.
“Chico, forgive me for all I put on you, please forgive me, son.”
She combed his hair back with her hand and kissed his forehead. When she returned to Anna on the couch, her sad demeanor had changed.
“Anna, bring that investigator here.”
“Please have a seat, I have all the information that you are looking for to solve this murder.” Mrs. Gomez was confident.
“Hello Mrs. Gomez, my name is Detective Mark Harrisburg. I am very sorry for your loss. Unfortunately, this death is being documented as an accidental drug overdose. There is no evidence of homicide.”
“No, this is a murder. The people that sold him those drugs are killers. You have to stop them, they were just outside in my yard. I pointed them out and you let them go.”
“Mrs. Gomez, I really do understand your concern and cannot imagine how upsetting this is. Unfortunately, my job is homicide investigation. This case is a clear cut overdose and not a homicide. It was documented that illegal drug use was involved. If you have further concerns, you can contact the police department for more information.”
“I can point to the house where the drugs come from, anyone around here can tell you it’s true. They are the dealers, I want them arrested. My son is dead!”
“Ma’am, as I said, I understand your concerns. Please contact the department in the morning. They will put you in touch with someone who can help you. I am very sorry for your loss and wish there was more that I could do, but I need to complete my investigation.”
“Go,” Mrs. Gomez replied. “Get out of my house.”
All the neighbors had gone home, the police and paramedics had left. Juanita and Anna sat in their living room in silence, not moving.
“Mama, it’s 5 A.M., you should go to bed. Are you going to work tomorrow?”
“I won’t be able to sleep, but yes, I need to go to work.”
“Okay, well, rest here. I’m going to check Junior’s room to make sure everything is okay.”
“Make sure you close his window, Mija.”
“Try to get some sleep,” Anna said before walking into the kitchen. She gathered up trash bags, washcloths, and spray cleaner. As Anna entered Junior’s room she took a big deep breath. Quickly, she pulled the sheets, pillowcases and blanket from the bed and put them all into the trash bags. Next, she sprayed the spots where the vomit had absorbed into the mattress and wiped them with the washcloths. Anna wiped down the table, closed the window, and put the stash box and its contents in the trash. On her way out of the room she set the shotgun inside the closet, picked up the dirty clothes and turned off the light and fan. When she came back into the living room, her mother was sound asleep on the couch.
“Mama, you awake? Are you still going to work?” Anna asked.
“Yes.” Juanita looked at her daughter with empty eyes. “I have no idea what to do next.”
“I have all the papers they gave us and will make some calls today.”
Anna made coffee for her mother and they shared a long embrace with tears.
“Baby girl, we are going to get through this.”
“When are we going to tell Dad?”
“I called him last night and he never answered. If he calls today, can you tell him?”
“Tell him I am going to need his help and will call him again tonight.”
Juanita arrived at work early, by mindless habit, and finished her coffee sitting in the car staring at the exterior of the mall. Like always, she clocked in and then found the kitchen manager.
“Miguel, I have some very bad news. Junior is dead.”
“What! What do you mean he’s dead?”
“He’s gone, died last night,” Juanita said as tears filled her swollen eyes. “I can’t talk about it.”
“Juanita, you should go home, why didn’t you call me and why are you here?”
“It’s better for me to be here, I need to work.”
“Okay, but if you change your mind, you can leave, just let me know.”
“I will be okay, but I am sorry that I can’t talk.”
Juanita went to the kitchen and started her daily routine gathering utensils and stacking clean plates at her station. Miguel notified the general manager, who called all of the staff into the kitchen. He asked the kitchen crew to come out from behind the line and then put his arm around Juanita.
“I wanted to notify you all of some very tragic news. Last night, Junior, Juanita’s son passed away.” The staff gasped with shock. “I don’t have a lot of details at this time, let’s make sure to respect Juanita’s privacy and show her as much support as possible. If you need a few minutes to process this, take it now, before we open.”
The staff was silent, and still in shock, as Jaunita wiped the tears from her face. Her voice cracked as she spoke to them in broken English.
“Junior loved working here with all of you.” She broke down and walked back to her station to continue working.
The Sunday restaurant crowds always showed up a little later than the Saturday crowds, but they were just as enthusiastic to get the Tex Mex experience at El Chico. Not one of the faithful customers noticed that, on this Sunday, the staff were not themselves or that the food was prepared without the usual love. Each staff member, while doing their best to focus on their jobs, hustled in and out of those revolving doors that day, wondering if they should make eye contact with Juanita. Should they smile at her, should they say something, should they talk about Junior, most of them barely knew him.
Each time those doors opened, Juanita quickly looked up, hoping to see her son walking through with his perfectly slicked back hair and big childish smile, “Chico?”