Norman Antonio Zelaya, Tommy on the Bus

Tommy fell twelve feet from the roof to the poolside, landing funny on his feet and rolling to the edge of the water. It was quiet enough when he fell being it was almost midnight on a Thursday in the middle of summer at Mission Playground where the lights go out at 10:00 p.m. and nobody’s supposed to be around anymore, much less on the roof of the only open-air swimming pool in San Francisco. It was quiet even with fifteen or so homeboys on a roof acting like the youngsters they were, talking in small groups, big smiles on their faces and jabbing at each other, hugging and putting each other in mild headlocks, their bursts of laughter echoing in the night air and bouncing off the buildings in the dead end of Linda Street.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤUs little heads wanted to be like them, to quit being kids and become the men they thought they were, so we followed them up onto the roof of the pool and talked and laughed and jabbed each other like they did. We stuck our heads into their huddles, trying to sneak a hit of the joints they passed around, coughing after we inhaled and they laughed at us, rubbing our heads and shoving us in approval. We stood together and watched the big heads jump off the roof into the dark water below, the splashes reaching our level and our cheers. We were too small to make the great leap from the roof into the water. Instead, we crawled down a drainpipe and dove from the lifeguard’s chair. The water was cold and it was hard to see in the dark and when we weren’t looking, the big heads dunked our heads under and held us there until we fought to the surface gasping for air and choking. We didn’t spend too much time in the water and climbed out quickly and stayed on the roof with everyone else, huddling close together in our boxers.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤTommy laughed hard as two of the older heads started wrestling. Dudes called out and talked shit to get them to be more aggressive, talking about ooh he fucked you up, bro. What they wanted to see was a fight for real, and soon it wasn’t a game anymore, the two boys’ faces getting hard and serious and one of them bleeding from his nose, and everybody talking about ooh shit, blood, he’s fucking you up, don’t take that shit, blood, all the homeboys close and on top of them ‘n shit, urging the fight to keep going. We stood behind the bigger boys and watched the fight through the spaces between their bodies. Tommy laughed like the older heads and even talked some shit like he knew the dudes fighting, like they could hear Tommy, and they did, and they were getting more pissed, and fuck that, they weren’t going to give Tommy the satisfaction.Who the fuck was he? Just a little head, maybe a year older than me but taller, gangly, approaching one of them but lacking, hella lacking, especially in name, who the fuck was he, just fucking nobody Tommy. So when the fight was over and the crowd broke, the two dudes came tumbling toward him. Tommy never saw them, laughing and still talking shit as he was. He got pushed aside and went over the edge. It suddenly got quiet and we could hear the pop before his body hit the pavement. Holy shit, fucker fell, is all anybody said and dudes started getting their shit together and got off the roof and out the park as fast as they could. Tommy’s cries echoed into the night sky as us little heads stared down at him holding his leg and crying, us standing close together and alone on the roof trying to figure out how we were going to get Tommy out of the pool.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤDamn, bro, remember that shit, how we used to jump off a fucking roof ‘n shit. Some of them fools couldn’t even swim ‘n shit. That was maney! Nobody cared though, bro, soon as you hit the water you were going so fast your fucking momentum took you straight to the bottom, and all you had to do was kick and fuckin rocket to the surface ‘n shit then dogpaddle to the side. That was hella fun. Tommy stretched across the bench seat at the back of the bus, all by his lonesome, knees spread wide open and periodically scratching his leg or hiking up his Ben Davis, big crooked teeth smile as he looked at the street going by, through the large rectangular windows, he was a grown-up version of that twelve year old, still long and gangly but a bit filled out but still Tommy from the neighborhood, always a little dirty, white T-shirt a little smudged, blackened fingernails, asking to bum a smoke from me, but I don’t smoke. That’s cool, taking care of yourself ‘n shit, that’s good, I just got out of jail myself, trying to land this job, you feel me, soon as I get off this long ass bus ride and the 14 Mission was a particularly long ass ride, some folks never made it off missing their stops all day long and trying to get home from work, trying to get to work from home, trying to make this appointment for this and for that, then make it to a government line for a three dollar copy of some document that proves you are who the fuck you say you are and then back on the 14 to make it before that window closes so you don’t have to miss any more time from work, any more time from home.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤHey, man, you got a cigarette? But I don’t smoke, remember Tommy? Yeah, that’s right, I already asked you ‘n shit. I’m trippin. Ha ha I just need a smoke, man, this is a damn long ass ride. You remember how we used to jump on the back of the J Church and ride it all the way to Day Park, fucking six of us ‘n shit holding onto each other, only one dude clinging to the wiper blades, fuckin dear life ‘n shit. We were crazy, dude. Or riding BART all day long just for the hell of it, kicks ‘n shit, we ain’t had nothing better to do so we be like let’s ride BART ‘n shit to nowhere. Just jump the gate and be gone all day. Man, I need a fuckin cigarette. This job needs to come through though. P.O. said he got something for me, so I’m gonna see what’s up. Man. I been on this bus forever ‘n shit. Fuckin three hour tour ‘n shit. Haha. We hella lost on this bitch, you feel me?

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤTommy was a lot like me. Nicoya Mission-born, light skindid, about the same age, poor, single mom at home, he had a little sister, I had a little sister, we lived two buildings apart but when I visited his place, I saw how we were different: his apartment was always unkempt, toys and clothes and shit covering the floor, his little sister trying to pick up whenever Tommy’s friends were over, no beans or rice on the stove, but pots and pans piled high in the sink. Tommy, go to the store and get your friends some chips or something, and Tommy grabbed the crinkled bill from his mother’s red-tipped hand and was out, me and one or two other dudes standing in the middle of the room, nowhere to sit, his little sister picking up shirts and towels and pants and hustling them into the bedroom as fast as she could, how are you boys? Still in school? We were like it’s summertime, señora. Hmm, that must be nice. Playing all day. Running outside. That is nice. Her voice was raspy and she was young and must have been pretty, once, she still had her alabaster skin and her dark eyes were bright, cute freckles on her cheeks but her tussled hair and that dying voice made her a lot older. The door slammed and Tommy rushed in unceremoniously, the large bag thrust into our faces, dig in, fellas, and we reached in tentatively, taking a single chip at a time. I was never comfortable there, as generous as they tried to be, and polite as they were. Amanda, get your brother’s friends some lemonade. I felt for Tommy, somehow I felt he might be unhappy, even though he never let on if he was, he was always inviting dudes over to the house or calling on you or wanting to do something, always. He liked being with his friends. Always.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤYeah, man, we were crazy then but the craziest shit was jumping off the roof of the pool. That was sick. It was high ‘n shit, right? But you didn’t care. You weren’t tripping about how high it was or the fact you had to clear the edge, it was like a little step, remember, and if you didn’t push off it right, you could trip and spill ‘n shit. But you didn’t care, you just wanted to be out in the air, just feel like you were flyin for a split second, free, free as fuck, man, when you was up in the air like that it was like you was as high as the buildings across the street on Linda Alley, it was like you were gonna clear the fuckin roofs and keep going. Free, it was freedom, bro. That’s probably why we didn’t give a fuck about jumpin off a damn roof. We just wanted to feel free.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤTommy remembered jumping off the roof of the pool differently than I did. That night, we got him out like the Coast Guard on a frayed rope, him swinging and bumping and dragging against the wall as we hauled him up. It hurt him, tied tight around the waistand leg. He cried, man, he fuckin cried, it’s too tight, fellas, it burns, I can’t feel my leg, please, please hurry. Us little heads doing all we could, hand over hand over hand, Chuck Taylors braced against the edge. It took us several minutes to untie the knots and finally free Tommy. He laid on his side and whimpered softly, wanting to touch his ankle. We stood around him, let him cry until it got better but then it only got late. Hey, man Tommy, we still got to get you down. Hey, dude, and a light touch on his shoulder, we gotta go.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤTommy didn’t remember things the way I did. I don’t think he ever jumped off that roof. I don’t remember ever seeing him back up there, just a wave goodbye and check you guys out as he split for home whenever we shimmied up the pipes to join the big heads on late nights. Tommy wasn’t bad, caught holding a little weed, which ain’t about shit except if you’re like Tommy and from here and dudes get arrested a lot for a little. Tommy wasn’t a bad dude, bro, and it probably wasn’t just the weed, it was all kinds of other shit like maybe—

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t got someone to greet you a good morning

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t ever tripped too much about school

‎ㅤㅤEducation ain’t never did too much to make you trip

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t got money

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t got good food to eat

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t got nice clothes, so dudes be clowning you

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t got no damn father

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t got models except for the fucks clowning you, and who never leave the park

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t ever had someone tell you you could leave

‎ㅤㅤAin’t ever had anyone let you in on the secret

‎ㅤㅤAin’t ever had a thought about where to go

‎ㅤㅤYou ain’t ever had someone say I love you,

‎ㅤㅤI love you, homeboy,

‎ㅤㅤI love you, Tommy,

‎ㅤㅤNo one ain’t ever told you you’re special, young blood,

‎ㅤㅤGod damn it, you’re special.

‎‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤ‎Tommy didn’t have much now on that bus. No cigarettes, no job, no stop in sight, but he had Tommy, he had himself, he was the only one with the strength and love to rouse him awake every morning, he had himself to keep company as he counted away the seconds tick tick tick, he loved himself enough to take the time to gel his hair and comb it, to clean himself up as much as he could, Tommy was never a very sharp homeboy, but he was still here, still had his chin up just in case a familiar face came through, a friend, he pushed forward, without no other choice, because Tommy had a huge heart, he was full of love, had it in reserves, just waiting, just waiting, just waiting, and Tommy had these stories, he had something to say to whoever was close, just like he did when we were teens and kicking it on the block, flipping cassette tapes on the boom box, he was always jabbering 100 miles a minute about a song, a group, a movie, dinner, a girl, Walkmans, the best Chinese food, gold chains, some lost homeboy, remember him, Adidas, weed, menthols, the beach, what it’s like in San Francisco, the flea market, water slides, weather, the California coast, earthquakes, fuckin Niners—Tommy could talk about it all, hitting a cigarette funny and all the time dancing to the music, a hot-footed high step, back and forth, side to side. He still had his stories. And for four more blocks me to listen to him.

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