Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …
© 2000 by Dave Jackson
“Cortez Selustiano,” called the guard. “You got a visitor—some woman.”
“Hey Slew, what’s this? How you rate conjugal visits?”
“Shut up, barf face. This ain’t California!” Cortez rose slowly from the table where he had been playing cards and pulled down on the short sleeve of his yellow prison shirt, covering the blue blur of the Latin Kings’ crown tattooed on his left bicep. He wasn’t for flashing it today, not with this visitor. On the other hand, why was he even seeing her?
“Come on, come on,” urged the guard. “I don’t have all day.”
Yes he did. He had all day, and then he would go home. Cortez wouldn’t go home until 2036. He threw the guard a leaden-eyed glance and shuffled toward the door, arriving just as the solenoid buzzed the lock open. Nothing could make him or his time move faster. His shoulders rolled with contempt as he strolled ahead of the guard from his “cottage”—yeah, all concrete and steel—across the frozen yard of the Illinois Youth Center at Joliet. He moved even slower. All too soon it would be the guard’s turn . . . to strip search him before he could enter the visitation room.
Why had he agreed to this?
It had been a year and a half since that sultry afternoon when Cortez approached some of his homies hanging across from Popeyes Chicken on the corner of Clark Street and Jordan Avenue, just south of the Evanston-Chicago border. “Hey, Rico, what’s happenin’ man? Who’s working?”
“My shorties takin’ care of business for me. They already moved four eight balls this morning. They learnin’,” said Rico Quiones, the enforcer for the local Latin Kings. He was leaning against the brick apartment building, brazenly smoking weed while a couple of wannabees zipped around, doing tricks on their bikes like flies over chicken. In spite of the warm weather, sixteen-year-old Rico wore an oversized Los Angeles Kings starter jacket.
Rico looked Cortez up and down. Then, pointing with his chin in a way that drew attention to the first few hairs of a hopeful goatee, he said, “Hey Slew, check out them GDs in that green Taurus.”
Cortez studied the ride as it crept by. “They ain’t no GDs. What would Gangster Disciples be doing cruisin’ with two white guys?”
“I’m tellin’ you, man, they’re all GDs. Watch this!” With one hand he stabbed the air with Latin King signs, his fingers making the points of a crown. With the other hand, he threw down the GD sign of the devil’s fork. The two wannabees joined in the taunting.
The green sedan pulled slowly into the small, Popeyes parking lot, and one of the white teenagers jumped out and ran in. The driver and the two black teens stayed in the car. One of them sneered at the Kings and then gestured with his middle finger.
“There, there! See what I told you,” harped Rico.
“See what? You crazy, man. That weren’t no gang sign. He just flipped you the bird, man. That’s all.”
“Nobody flips this Almighty Latin King the bird. That was for you, punk. You droppin’ the flag, man.” He turned away and mumbled under his breath, “Cobarde!”
Cortez straight-armed Rico in the back, right between his shoulders. “What’d you say, man? What’d you call me?”
Rico lurched forward and almost went down, then turned around slowly. “I’ll call you anything I want. You gonna do something about it? Besides, anybody who can’t recognize GD scum ain’t no true King.”
“I’m down for the Kings just as much as you are, man, and I ain’t no coward. I’ve seen a couple of those guys at ETHS. We went to school together. They ain’t in no gang.”
“You’re as dumb as you look, Slew. So what if you’ve seen them at Evanston High? Those guys are from the Juneway Jungle. Why else they be cruisin’ round here? They’re GDs, all right. You just won’t admit it, ’cause you don’t want to do nothing about it. You’re asustado!”
“Cobarde! Cobarde!” the wannabees chanted.
“I ain’t scared. Gimme the piece. I’ll show you.”
“Oh yeah, you’ll show us. You can’t show us squat!” Rico pulled the 9-mm semiautomatic pistol from the depths of his huge jacket and slapped it into Cortez Selustanio’s open hand. “So far, you ain’t Slew nobody. So let’s see if you can live up to your street name.”
Cortez stared hard at him then turned around just as the door on the green sedan slammed and the car pulled out of the parking lot. Without realizing it, Cortez let out a sigh of relief.
“Now ain’t that convenient,” sneered Rico. “They’re gone, so you don’t have to do nothin’. Of course, if you had any guts, you could go after them.” Rico nodded at the shorties’ bikes. “They won’t be gettin’ far in this traffic.”
Cortez wrapped a handkerchief around the 9-mm and dropped it into the cargo pocket on his baggy pants. He glanced up the street and then jumped on one of the bikes.
“Five high, six die,” sang the wannabees as he took off.
He rode north between the parked cars and the slow moving traffic. Maybe before he overtook the green sedan, he could duck into an alley, and no one would know what happened. But then he heard Rico peddling hard after him on the other bike.
“Hey Slew, you gotta hurry, man, if you gonna catch ’em. Let’s go!”
“Let’s go, Selustiano!” But now it was the voice of the guard ushering him into the small room. “Hurry up. Let’s go!” Cortez yanked his arm away where the guard had touched his elbow. If it had to be a strip search, he sure didn’t want anyone touching him. He’d heard how some guards tried to turn guys into pancakes. But why mess with inmates? If the guards were kinky, they could get all they wanted on the outside. But Cortez knew why. It was a power thing.
Slowly, as slowly as he could possibly move without getting yelled at, he pealed off his clothes, bent over, went through the routine, and got dressed again. By then he didn’t feel like seeing a woman, not any woman.
In the visitation room, Cortez waited and waited. If she were here, why didn’t they let her in and get this over with? But it did give him time to calm down. He’d be cool. Maybe somehow this would do him some good.
The door on the opposite side of the room opened, and he spotted her. Short brown hair, tanned skin, blue eyes, tall, and maybe a little too thin. A nice looking Anglo, but she seemed younger than he remembered. She came to him and reached out her hand. He scanned away as he offered a limp hand, briefly. He did not rise.
“Hi. I’m Connie Mason.”
“Yeah, I know. I seen you in court.”
She stood there until he glanced back and let out a sigh. “You wanna sit down?”
Slowly she eased into the chair on the opposite side of the table. “I hope you don’t mind.” She folded her arms and hunched her shoulders as though hiding her femininity.
Cortez snorted. If she was so uncomfortable with this, why was she here?
“So. Uh . . . what do you want to do?” he finally asked.
“I want to talk to you, and—” She dropped her eyes and looked around on the floor as though trying to find something she’d misplaced.
“And what?” His jaw stiffened. “Look, lady, I’m sorry. It was just one of those things, you know?”
Her head jerked up, eyes flashing. “No, no I don’t know. And don’t call it ‘just one of those things’!” For several moments she just sat, and he saw the muscles in her jaw twitch as though she didn’t trust herself to speak. Finally, she took a deep breath. “I’ve thought about you often since . . . since . . . and I just want to talk.”
Cortez shrugged and slouched back in his chair. This wasn’t going as he had imagined. But then, just how had he thought it would go?
“Many years ago,” the woman started, “I made my holy communion at St. Gertrude’s Church.” Her voice was controlled as though she had pushed the “play” button on a tape recorder. “I was only eight, but I was sure that believing on Jesus would keep me out of Hell. . . .”
So what was this little confession about? All of the ladies in Cortez’s life had been “good Catholic girls” at one time or another.
He must have rolled his eyes, because she hit replay. “No, no I really meant it when I believed in Jesus. But—but life went on—alcoholic parents, school, growing up, my first boyfriend. Although I knew Jesus was with me, I usually ignored Him. And in time I pretty much forgot about Him, and I forgot about who I was. Life became very dark for me with a lot of drugs and sex, even an abortion.” Without missing a beat, the prepared speech had turned into a fountain that was overflowing, and tears began to well up in her eyes. “I may have been saved from eternal punishment, but I didn’t know what it was to live as a member of God’s family.”
Cortez watched her lean back in her chair, unfold her arms, and begin fingering the small gold cross that hung from her neck.
“I finally came to my senses when I was twenty-four and a harried mother. Alice was three, and then came Greg. . . .”
Cortez stiffened. Oh no—he didn’t need this. Not now, not today, not any day.
She stopped, looked away, and swallowed hard—once, twice.
“I’m sorry. I thought I could do this.” She rubbed her nose and sniffed hard.
“I didn’t ask you here.”
“I know, but I wanted to.” She took a deep breath. “I was sitting on the beach along Lake Michigan when a couple women with their own babies in strollers approached me and asked if they could tell me about Jesus. ‘It’s a free country,’ I said with a shrug. One of them asked me if I knew Jesus, and finally I said sure. After all, I’d been raised Catholic. But then she asked me, ‘So how’s your life now?’ ”
With her eyes teary and nose red and running, Cortez’s visitor smiled at him for the first time, as if to say, “I’m sure you understand that question.” But he didn’t, or at least didn’t want to, and glanced away.
“Anyway, that day on the beach, those words pierced me like acupuncture needles, and suddenly I started pouring out all the details of my miserable life. I couldn’t help myself. My days—often twenty-four hours without sleep—were a haze of smoking pot, dirty diapers, TV, coffee by the gallon, and visions of throwing one of my kids out the window. I felt like a flickering florescent light.”
She paused a moment, and Cortez realized that he had been leaning forward, listening to her story. He slumped back into his chair. What did he care?
“But God had sent those women,” she continued, “and they prayed long and hard with me as I recommitted my life to Jesus—making him my king, my boss, my priest. It was time for him to run the show! I’d already screwed up bad. I needed help, so I even turned my kids, Alice and Greg, over to God, too.”
Greg—yeah, Greg. He’d been the one riding shotgun in the green Taurus that day as Cortez and Rico had raced after it on their bicycles. The red light at Howard Street stopped the Taurus long enough for Cortez to pull up beside it. Maybe he would just yell at them or show the gun and scare the crap out of ’em.
But Rico had pulled up on the other side and started yelling. “Yo, Slew. Don’t forget what our great Inca, Amor De Rey, says, ‘Cowards die many times before their death; Latin Kings never taste death but once.’ ”
Cortez’s eye started twitching. If cowards died many times, then he was dying at that very moment as Greg Mason’s pale face through the Taurus window was replaced by his own pained reflection. Was he Slew or Cobarde? Cortez gritted his teeth, reached down, and jerked the pistol from his pant’s pocket. Still wrapped in its gang handkerchief, Greg probably didn’t even know what it was.
“Do it, man! Do it! Don’t be no cobarde!”
The blast was deafening. Through the spider-webbed window, Cortez saw blood oozing from Greg’s shoulder, but it pumped, spurting, gushing red and frothy from the hole in his chest.
“All right! You did it! You did it!”
The words broke through the ringing in Cortez’s ears.
“Come on, man. Let’s get outta here. Five-o’s be comin’!”
The ringing in Cortez’s ears merged into sirens as he wheeled the bike away from the Taurus and sped back down Clark Street. He turned west on Jordan. But he only made it one more block. . . .
“Did you know Greg in high school?” asked Connie Mason as she leaned forward in her seat in the visitation room to stare hard at Cortez.
“What?” Cortez looked at her, his thoughts still screaming.
“Did you know Greg before . . .”
“Oh. Not really,” he muttered. Her looking at him like that gave him the willies, and he looked down, tracing the lines in the tabletop.
For a long moment she said nothing, and Cortez wished she would leave. Just go away and leave him alone, forever. Then she continued. “He was a champion swimmer, you know. He finished number one in the state. And then he started competing nationally. They were getting him ready for the Olympics. He had a real good chance. I used to worry about him all the time when he was away at those meets. Never thought he would die so close to home. . . .”
Cortez braced himself for the you-rotten-gangbangers-are-all-going-to-burn-in-hell part.
But her voice softened. “You know, life wasn’t a cake walk for me when I returned to Jesus. But it was getting better. I had hope . . . .”
Cortez almost stood up right then and walked away. Instead, he looked up at her and sat rock solid, not moving a muscle.
“But it’s gotten real hard lately, harder than I could ever imagined.” Her voice cracked slightly. “I really loved Greg—his murder tore up our whole family.” She returned his stare until he broke away. “But I do need to tell you this,” she said. “Jesus has been with me through it all. And Jesus is the reason I had to come here and see you.”
Cortez felt her warm hands surround one of his. Her touch drew his entire attention, but he didn’t look at it.
After a few moments of silence, she said, “Well, I didn’t know whether you’d ever be able to ask my forgiveness for killing my son . . . so I’ll go first. I forgive you.”
He jerked his head up. What had she just said? Had he herd her right?
She nodded. “That’s why I came here. I really do forgive you!”
“But . . . you can’t just . . . why?” he whispered hoarsely.
She withdrew her hands as though his skin had suddenly become hot. “You killed my son. I cannot bring him back. I could . . .” Her voice rose and hung there. After a moment, her fingers found the little gold cross again. “But if I do not forgive you,” she continued with relief, “the hatred will kill me as well.”
Slowly she stood to her feet. As if in a foggy daze, he rose awkwardly. “Besides, she added as tears filled her eyes, “I, too, have been forgiven.” Then she put her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek.
An instant later, she was walking across the visitation room, weaving between the tables with other inmates and their families or girlfriends until she stood at the door waiting for the guard to buzz her out. Cortez sank back into his chair.
She looked back once, flashed a brief, misty smile, and then was gone.
He sat for several minutes trying to take it all in until a guard called, “Hey, Selustiano! This place is for visitation, not meditation. Get out of here!”
It must have been the cold wind that blurred his vision on the way back across the yard. He raked his wrist across first one eye and then the other before entering the cottage.
“Wow, Slew,” his card-playing friend intoned. “How was she? You sure took long enough.”
“Shut up, barf face. And hey, don’t call me Slew no more. Got that? My name’s Cortez.”
He walked over to the window and stood there a long time staring past the paint-chipped bars into the frozen yard.
That night, with only the security lights on, Cortez lay on his narrow cot trying to ignore the snores and sighs and rhythmic movements around him. Just what had happened that afternoon? What did it matter whether or not he was forgiven if he had to spend nearly forty more years here?
And yet, Perdonado, Perdonado. It clung to him like a new name.
By Dave Jackson, Perdonado, The Storytellers Collection (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2000), pp. 216-225. NOTICE: This story is protected by copyright (© 2000 Dave Jackson).
© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson