The car is totally cherry.
So is the night. A warm Southern California summer night.
I’ve got my elbow out the window of the pinstriped, midnight-blue Mercury Marquis with the dipped front end when the lightbar on the cop car behind me goes off red blue, red blue, red blue, and they whoop the siren.
I’m downtown and they’re pulling me over for being a paisa with a ponytail in a gangbang car on the white folks’ street at the wrong time.
But I’m cool. I been driving low and slow. It’s routine hassle.
Javier told me go ahead take the Merc. I’m such a numbnuts I go for it when Javier says he’s borrowed the ride from a guy he knows. Except the guy he knows boosted it from another guy who reported it stolen.
The cops do the usual: one of them on the sidewalk back from the rear bumper, his hand on his gun butt; the younger one comes up to the window with a hand on the butt of his too.
The fuckers never pronounce it right and sometimes laugh when I tell them my name is Angel Jesus Soto, so I just say Angelo Joseph and let it go at that. Some days I’d rather be Italian than vato anyway.
I give him my best smile and the Italian version of my name and keep my hands in plain sight on the top of the wheel, and he says, “Step out of the car please.”
My stomach sinks. They only tell you to step out of the car when you’re in the shit.
Out on the pavement I assume the stance, hands on hood, legs spread.
It’s a busy street and I’m pulled over next to a hydrant, the squad car double-parked behind me, the light bar pinballing. The sidewalk is crowded with people coming out of theatres, going into brightly lighted restaurants. Mostly they don’t look and walk fast because you never know if the brown boy bent over the gangster car might go berserk. I wish I was on the sidewalk too. My eyes are wet, but I don’t let on.
The younger cop pats me down while his partner, a careful distance away, snaps his holster open.
The cop finds my license.
“Real name, Angel Jesus Soto. What the hell you doing, Angelo Joseph, giving a peace officer false ID?”
I turn my head thinking I can explain, and before I know it he’s got my arm in a lock, my face planted on the Merc’s hood and the other arm back there, and he’s snapping on the cuffs. I’ve got to give him credit, he’s like a snake with the cuffs.
And that’s it. I’m back in the system.
They book me, put me in the orange jumpsuit, and stick me in an isolation cell, not with the population like I expected.
“How about my phone call?” I ask the guard as he shoves me in. I figure to call Javier and at least tell him what happened to me and the Merc.
“Shut up,” the guard says. “No phone, no contacts.”
I flake out on the thin pad, wondering what the hell. Has the system changed that much since I was here the last time?
They’ve got me stuck away. I listen to the hollow sound of concrete and steel. A TV somewhere isn’t loud enough to follow, a murmur of men’s voices, the occasional laugh; the tang of disinfectant; a whiff of cigarette smoke; the fug where too many men sweated out much time.
I drift and wonder did Javier know the Merc was jacked when he offered it? I go back over the easy way he said it: “Nah, don’t bother,” he said, “take that Merc over there.” Hard as I try, I can’t read anything into it, but that don’t mean there wasn’t nothing there.
My mind moves to Rubytips like it does when I get sleepy. Javier’s sister, Elena, she’s fifteen, Rubytips her tweet handle. It’s just a tag until you see her titties. I’m at Javier’s house as much as my own, and Elena is always around. I knew she had something going on. I try not to look, but who can’t notice? Then one day we’re alone and she asks me if I want to see them and pulls up her top. I’m sitting in a kitchen chair and she’s standing in front of me and I’m looking at the most beautiful set of tits I could ever imagine. I can see why she’s proud of them. They’re nice size, high and pointy, perfect, with bright pink nipples.
“Want to touch?” she asks.
They’re warm silk.
From then on, whenever we’re alone—and she’s making things happen that way—off comes her blouse or up comes her shirt. I kiss them and pet them. But that’s all. I never touch her down below. She puts a hand on my Levis and rubs and squeezes, but I don’t let her inside my pants. I’d be lost for sure.
I know what’s going on. Her homies are having babies, some of them getting married, and she wants to hang with them. She’s picked me out of the lineup.
I’m on the edge of sleep in that cell, petting the rubytips, and then my eyes pop open and I’m sitting up remembering a couple months ago when Javier walked in on us. Elena and I are on the sofa with the TV going and I’m stroking her beauties and Javier opens the door and starts to walk in. He backs out, closes the door and never says nothing about it, so I don’t bring it up either. I worry for a week or two, but nothing changes and it fades away.
But now I see it. You won’t be touching my sister’s titties, not where you’re going.
The next afternoon I’m chained to a steel table in an interview room. When they came for me, they put manacles on my ankles, my hands cuffed to a waist chain, my ankles chained to my waist and I say, “What the hell?” and one of the guards kicks me in the shin with a steel-toe boot and it hurts like hell and I shut up.
My public defender sits beside me; across from us is the assistant district attorney. The PD goes first. He’s got my file open in front of him and pages through it with his right hand. He’s maybe thirty-five, tall and trim, a clean sharp look to his face, broad shoulders, thinning hair. His left hand is in the pocket of this dark blue suit jacket, and I can see it in there flexing on a rubber ball he carries. This morning when he talked to me in my cell he had it out, squeezing it and flipping it from hand to hand. He told me about his weight lifting and his surfing. “The human body is a temple,” he said.
Now he’s going through my file. “Knowingly providing false information to a peace officer,” he says, “grand theft auto, resisting arrest, accepting stolen goods with intent.” He looks up at me. “If you’re convicted, felony strike two.”
They always throw in resisting arrest, that’s routine. The stolen goods is the stuff in the Merc’s trunk I didn’t know about. The strike two sends a shiver down my spine. It’s three strikes and you’re out. On the third strike, doesn’t matter what, they put you away twenty-five to life. My first strike was seven years ago, when I was eighteen, B&E, breaking and entering. I was the lookout on the corner for Javier and a couple guys, that’s all, never even went in the store. I’ve been clean since. Doesn’t matter.
But having two strikes… Everybody knows about the drunk coming out of a bar, finds a bike in somebody’s front yard, rides it home. Strike three, twenty-five to life for a stolen bicycle.
Two strikes is like having a guy walking backwards in front of you twenty-four seven with the point of a knife at your throat: one stumble and you’re dead.
The ADA speaks up. She’s younger than the PD, but it won’t be long before she’s older, a twisted, worn look to her face, dark hair short in a man’s cut, gray suit. “Not if you’re convicted,” she says, “when.” She makes clear she’s got more balls than the pussy PD.
She’s right. The PD shrugs and smiles. “You need to cut a deal.” He slides the file across to the ADA and stands up. “I need a break.”
I watch him stroll out the door. What the fuck? I need a break? He walks out? Then I catch on: he doesn’t want to know.
My shin aches as the ADA puts her palms flat on the table and lays it out, the trial she’s got going on, the guy she needs to put away big time.
It comes down to this: I do my part and I walk, the arrest record expunged, no strike two, no nothing. A window of blue sky opens somewhere up above me and I nod my head, looking up at that little bit of sky.
They keep the shackles on me, transport me to the County Courthouse, and jerk me into a windowless room with just one cop. Before I know what’s what, he hits me twice across the face with his nightstick, forehand and backhand, zap zap.
These fucking cops, are they faster and harder, or am I slower and softer? Are they all vets from Afghanistan or what?
The holding cells are in the basement and they pitch me on the bed, weak-kneed and woozy, take off the shackles, and toss me a towel for the blood dripping from my mouth. I know what it’s about, a reputation for the new guy, a badass who needs to be subdued.
As my head clears, I look through the bars to the next cell and check him out, the guy who’s on trial.
He’s flat on his back on the floor in the middle of his cell, ankles crossed, fingers laced behind his head. On his throat, just above the collar of his orange jumpsuit, I can see the tat of black fingers sticking up, and I know there’s an M in the palm of that black hand. La eMe.
“Hey, man,” I say.
He turns his head; his black eyes open on me like radar. He’s got two tear drops tattooed at the corner of an eye. His lips barely move when he talks. “Shut the fuck up, ese.”
I try a couple more times, but he won’t talk, he won’t turn his head or open his eyes. He’s a soldier. He ignores the bed, stays on the floor to show he’s harder than anything they’ve got in here. Harder than concrete. Harder than steel.
All night long, he won’t speak. He’s way out ahead of the ADA.
Shit, he was born so far ahead of the butch ADA she’ll never catch up. It’s funny when I lay there and think about it, but not funny ha-ha. He doesn’t give a shit and he has no doubts. Warriors don’t doubt; they don’t wonder should I do this, should I do that. He’ll be as much at home in a cell as he would be in his mama’s kitchen.
In a way, I wish I was like him. It would be simpler not to want anything, not hope for anything. But we aren’t like that. Elena with her rubytips wants a baby and maybe a husband; the PD wants a paycheck so he can keep surfing and lifting; the ADA wants a conviction, she’s desperate for a conviction. And now I’m desperate too.
The ADA told me what she’ll need when she puts me on the stand in the morning.
“It doesn’t have to be a full confession. I’ll ask you if you spoke to him during the night and you say you asked him if it’s true he did the girl in the shower so there wouldn’t be DNA. All I need is he smiled and nodded. That’s all I need. Corroboration.”
One lightweight lie and I walk. But I know what happens next: La eMe puts a green light on me and everybody in my family, maybe Javier and Elena too. La eMe is like an army, guys everywhere. A green light means drive-bys, blood in the streets. Or I tell the truth: the fucking warrior told me to shut the fuck up and never said nothing else all night long. Then I’m the one looking at a cell—there’s no doubt of that—and I come out with two strikes.
The clock is ticking and I’ve got to choose.
William L. Spencer has published fiction and non-fiction in the San Diego Reader and West Coast Review, Furtive Dalliance Literary Review, The Magnolia Review, Fabula Argentea, and Weber: The Contemporary West (2020). He is a winner of First Place for Fiction (twice) and First Place for Non-Fiction from the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild, and winner of the Ursus Press Short Story Contest. He edited “Across This Silent Canvas” by Hubbard Miller. A graduate of the University of Washington, he lives in San Diego with his wife. He can be found on scribophile.com as Carlos Dunning.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “In the System”:
By immediately thrusting the reader into the head of his main character, author William L. Spencer delivers a powerful opening: interesting character, clear setting, and escalating conflict. Impressive is the tightness of this story and how much is packed into each line. No words are wasted here. It’s a powerful piece start to finish.