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JOHN VARGAS

A Mad Man and a Liar

The Bikes

This house is much too good for us, I thought as I grabbed a box filled with random objects from our last home that would soon make this mansion more ours.

As a kid, I lived in many a bad home and apartment. San Gabriel Valley, California was an odd burg. Mostly, it was nice. Nice homes, nice lawns, nice— Some, nice people… Quiet, for the most part. But then there were areas that you knew it was best to stay away from, often localized in a single block, or even a single building. Places where poor people, and the monsters that preyed upon them, lived. Monsters that could be heard gnawing on anything edible late at night. Some you couldn’t hear, but always witnessed scurrying under refrigerators when the lights came on. As a kid, I learned to accept these uninvited beasts.

Some of those monsters were human in form. The worst of them were the ones that owned these slum buildings in slum blocks, unwilling to do anything except collect rent from those unable to live elsewhere. These monsters we were forced to accept.

We had to move. Constantly. Pops could not make enough, nor could mom. Or even abuelita. Three working immigrant adults evidently could not keep four young men fed clothed and housed. So, we moved around.

This house, however… This house in West Covina… This was a mansion as far as I was concerned. It was a corner house. When you move around as much as I did, you become an unlicensed realtor rather quickly. Corner houses were best. They had the most room. Granted, this one was on the corner of a busy street, and behind it was a sewer run off, but to me, it was like living in Kane’s Xanadu.

It actually had a dining room. I remember that. A room wherein one is supposed to only eat meals. A room designed for one purpose. I remember thinking how odd that was. I’d only seen such things on TV. Mr. Drummond had one. Now, The Vargases did as well. We really were moving on up. Yes, I know that’s a different TV show.

I also remember that this was one of the few times my parents moved us out of our normal schools into the local ones. I’m still not sure why. I think they saw how nice the neighborhood was and wanted us to have a better chance? Or maybe they’d had it with driving us all over SGV, dropping us off, picking us up, lying to schools.

This was near the end of my elementary school tenure, fifth grade, I believe. The kids were not exactly nice, but then, few are. Even then, I felt that kids were kind of terrible. They didn’t have the goddamned common courtesy to be fake nice to your face, instead, they were jerks. To this day, when I meet someone who says, Hey I’m just honest, if you can’t handle it, too bad, I think, Oh, so you’re basically a fifth grader with a car.

Somehow in that foundry of hate and intolerance, I made a few friends. What can I say, I was more likable as a kid, I guess. I can’t remember his name, but for some reason, I think of the name Wes. I don’t like that name, so that may be why I think of it for him. White kid. Blond hair, cut very close, as if he was going off to fight a war against other eleven year olds with bad haircuts.

He invited me over to his house to play. So, I rode my bicycle over. At the time, I had a cheap Chinese knock-off of a GT. Those who know BMX, know that GTs were among the best you could get at the time. I still don’t know what GT stands for, actually. I saved up all the money I could from the terrible paper route I had in Baldwin Park, so I could buy myself a GT. Then I found out how much they cost. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. But, like most of my childhood, somehow it worked out. My parents were able to give me some money to help me buy a bike. Not a GT, but maybe something at the swap meet. And that’s what I got. A bike with the tell tale bend of the lower frame that made people think I had a sweet GT, and not something probably inexpertly welded by a kid my age in a factory in China. It was the best bike I could get.

As I rode up to his house, Wes saw me on my bike and laughed at it. He knew it was a cheap fake. He had a Diamond Back. Oh sure, it wasn’t as high calibre as a GT, but at least it wasn’t a fake. This relationship was off to a rocky start.

I remember his neighborhood was really nice. Much nicer even than my new one. Where we had two major West Covina streets, he had a cul-de-sac. Where we had a run off drain, he had… We’ll he had a nice backyard that connected to his neighbor’s backyard which was also probably in a nice cul-de-sac.

We rode around the neighborhood a bit. No parents. No adults. That’s not how you raised kids in the 80s. You hid a key for them, let them play with their friends until it got dark, then you fed them. That’s it. I guess parents didn’t live in abject fear of abduction then. But then, the media was just starting to learn how to properly scare people into submission.

We met up with some of Wes’ friends, across the street from his palace. A couple more showed up. Then a couple more, then one or two more. Now there were about seven of us. Well, six of them, and one of me. I immediately felt like I didn’t belong. These kids were rich, by my standard of living. And I could feel the disdain for my cheap bike emanating from their eyes. They straddled their Hutches and Diamond Backs. Diamond Backs were very popular, it seemed. One guy actually had a GT. A real GT! He barely acknowledged me.

I’m sure they could all smell the poor on me.

We did have some things in common. For instance, their parents were all working late as mine were. Except, and this is the what put me on the outside of their circle: their parents got paid a living wage. At the time, I didn’t know that, I only knew I didn’t belong in this neighborhood. With these kids.

Down the street, at the end of the picturesque cul-de-sac: an open garage. A flash of chrome. A flash of chrome that came barreling down the street towards us. No one noticed. Only me. It was another boy, riding his beautiful chrome bike towards us, as fast as Eddie Fiola, but utterly lacking any finesse. Indeed, it looked as if at any moment, he may lose it and slam into a parked car. I said I noticed him. That’s not completely true, I acknowledged him. The other kids noticed him, but chose to ignore him. As he got closer and faster, I knew someone else would have to acknowledge him as well, if not, he’d crash into us all.

But that didn’t happen.

He got within about ten feet of us and turned sharply into the curb and crashed harder than anyone I’d ever seen crash on a bicycle. The bike’s rim bent itself on the curb, his whole body, with stunning velocity slammed into the shiny chrome metal of his beautiful BMX bike. Mercifully, it was over very quickly. He lay on the clean, newly laid asphalt and screamed as he held his genitals. Screaming for his mother. It was then that I noticed he was much older than us. Maybe nineteen. And obviously mentally challenged.

The pressure in my chest moved swiftly into my throat, creating a lump. A mass that could not be swallowed, but only released through an emotional outburst that would be anathema among pre-adolescent boys. So I held it in. As hard as I could, I held in the pain I felt for this young man.

The others had no qualms about holding anything in. They let it out with no shame. They laughed uproariously at this man’s pain. As he writhed and held his injured genitalia, trying to give himself comfort, and cried as a child would, these others, these children laughed at his pain. Brutally.

The were glad they were not him, and wanted to make him pay for the crime of being a retard, wanting acceptance by a group of young boys whom he related to. Whom he looked up to.

Braving the mocking cackling of children, rushing to his aid, his parents came into the fray. Breaking through the wall of laughter to retrieve and comfort their son. The mother immediately got to him, tears in her eyes, but making not a whimper of noise. She picked him up too easily and cradled him in her arms. It was then that I noticed that this young man was frail and thin, and probably not from lack of nutrition. The young man kept crying for his mother even though he was already in her protecting embrace. His face wet with tears and saliva. She kissed him gently and made comforting sounds to him, patting his body. To her, he was still a baby.

The father picked up his mangled bike and calmly walked it back to their home, his wife ahead of him. It was a PK Ripper. By my estimation, the Lamborghini of BMX bikes.

The parents made no effort to notice us. As if they could not hear the boys’ mocking laughter, though I’m sure it was deafening to them. They just took their son back home to comfort and help heal his physical pain, the only pain that may eventually subside.

As I watched them walk away, with the cacophonous soundtrack of laughter, I noticed the father’s slumped shoulders. The weight of the burden he carried for his son was crushing him.

Laughter still.

I realized, in this nice neighborhood, with the backdrop of big houses and beautifully manicured lawns, among kids on expensive bikes, I was again surrounded by monsters.

These parents only wanted what their son had wanted: to be accepted. To have friends. He had the nicest bike. Perhaps they got it so the other kids would accept him. Or at the very least, not torment him.

But that isn’t how we are made, I guess. We are not made of such stout material. We are made of much flimsier material. We are made of conformity. We are to do and think as those around us, even if it is at the pain and torment of another. It is in the crowd where we find strength. Rarely it is found within ourselves.

As they neared their home, the father, still walking his son’s crippled bike, straightened his shoulders and put his free arm around his wife. His back was now a shield, protecting his family.

While I am proud to say I did not laugh, I ashamed to say I did nothing to help him. Did nothing comfort him. I left that for his beleaguered parents. I was too young to take a stand, I think. More pointedly, I was too weak.

I think of this father often when the world seems to stand around me, laughing and pointing at my failures. Sometimes my shoulders straighten. Often they slump.

We only lasted a few months in the relative affluence of West Covina, I think my parents knew we had a hard time fitting in with kids who had much more money. Soon we moved to La Puente. An area further south. In direction and poverty. But at least I was among my own again.

I was still away from the friends I knew, but my parents redoubled their efforts to get us back into our old schools, with our old friends. Unfortunately, since I lived so far away from them, and because I was so young, it was difficult to see them on weekends. So I spent a lot of that time at home alone, learning to live without the crowd.

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