(Excerpt from Leaving Yesler, New York, NY: Pleasure Boat Studio (2010), reprinted with permission from the author.)
|Bobby knew he’d avoided many more battles because the thugs knew they'd have ferocious Paulie to deal with later.
One day, Cortez—first name or last, no one knew—suddenly declared himself to be the baddest young brother in the Yesler Terrace housing project. To prove it he snuck up on Bobby Vincente, called out his name and sucker punched him when he turned around.
“High-yella punk, Cortez snorted as he and his pals fished through Bobby’s pockets for change. “If I was you, I’d stay where you are.”
It took two weeks, but Paulie, Bobby’s older brother, caught up with Cortez and broke his knee with a baseball bat. Bobby was glad, but unlike Paulie, he didn’t love fighting—the pain, the jumbled emotions. It just wasn’t him.
The differences didn’t end there. Bobby was also much lighter than Paulie, which was hard to figure since his Filipino father was the color of old mahogany and his mother was part black.
But differences aside, the boys were close—Paulie ever vigilant, Bobby ever grateful. Bobby knew he’d avoided many more battles because the thugs knew they'd have ferocious Paulie to deal with later.
That was over now because Paulie had become an accidental soldier, an 18 year-old draftee. Last month, a Viet Cong mortar turned him into a statistic.
When word got out, a lot of neighbors came around—some to offer condolences, but others, Bobby was certain, to make sure Paulie was dead.
In the days following the funeral, Bobby’s neighbors would nod solemnly, their demeanor acknowledging his loss. But eventually that changed, especially for the girls, because life goes on, and, well, Bobby was handsome, even pretty—a mixed blessing on the street.
|He loved the feel of the books, the silence of the reading room. Saturday was his chance to imagine, to explore the world beyond Yesler.
It’s what Angie Tavares thought. She was an older and very pretty Filipino- Indian girl, who lived in the apartment two doors down. As far as Bobby could tell, she spent her time teasing her thick, black hair so that a few strands always defied gravity, standing up and curling at the ends.
Earlier today Angie had stepped out from her doorway and stopped him on his way to the downtown library, his Saturday destination. He loved the feel of the books, the silence of the reading room. Saturday was his chance to imagine, to explore the world beyond Yesler.
At first Bobby hadn’t noticed Angie, so intent was he on balancing four thick novels. He almost walked into her, but pulled up just in time.
“Oh, hi,” Bobby said.
Angie smiled, then put her index finger daintily on his jacket lapel. “Bobby,” she began coyly. “You look like Smokey… as in Smokey Robinson.”
And ooh, baby, baby, her folks were out so could he please come over and croon falsetto lyrics of love?
He looked at her, his eyes bouncing inside his head. She was pretty enough. No, make that real pretty, but…
“I gotta return these books, otherwise there’s fines and well, you know,” he finally blurted, as he turned to walk away.
“If you ever wanna come over to talk…” he heard her say. “I’m sorry ‘bout Paulie”
“Me, too,” he mumbled.
Bobby declined the invitation. He may have been the only boy in Yesler to have ever turned Angie down. Today, though, he just wasn't interested, or at least not interested enough.
He’d heard the whispers—that he was that way—but he ignored them. He didn’t dislike Angie or any other girl, but he wasn’t fond of what it took to get and keep them – the loud talking, fist-throwing, territory-establishing rituals that other boys did.
|In his mind he could see the reading room, he could hear the silence: his oasis—no Cortez, no confusion, no sorrow or doubt.
Just last week he’d watched two boys punch and gouge each other in a nearby park until hoots from the spectators caught a passing cop’s attention. From Bobby’s perch on the edge of a knoll, he saw Luisa—the object of their combat—slowly drift to the back of the crowd and leave with Eddie, the street-savvy half-brother of a Mexican friend of his.
Luisa smiled as she passed him. “Shh,” she said.
Silly, he thought, too much mess—way too much, especially for the young women, whose main value seemed to be their skill at making their unfaithful lovers feel good about themselves. He’d seen it happen too often. They would be left holding diapered surprises and having even less chance of changing their lives and leaving Yesler.
It happened to Angie, who gave birth to twins a year or so ago. No sign of the kids since. Word had it they’d been sucked up by the state.
And now she was ready to risk it all again. Bobby thought she was foolish, but not that different from a lot of the other Yesler girls he knew.
“Get over here,” Bobby had often heard streetwise Romeos snarl at Angie and other young women. But it wasn’t just the words that stung his ears, it was the universal tone, like a master summoning his dog. If that was all he wanted, he’d have gone to the pound and adopted a beagle or some Lassie lookalike.
Bobby expected more, or maybe it was less—he wasn’t sure. He figured that having a girlfriend should be simpler and fairer—two people meeting, finding out they liked each other, deciding to be together, deciding to be apart.
That’s why entertaining Angie was the farthest thing from his mind. He knew how she and the other Yesler girls would expect him to be, and that wasn’t him.
Bobby quickened his pace. In his mind he could see the reading room, he could hear the silence: his oasis—no Cortez, no confusion, no sorrow or doubt. With Paulie gone, he’d have to figure out who he was—and who he wasn’t—on his own. He knew Angie couldn’t help him, but maybe—just maybe—the library could.
© Peter Bacho
top | about the author