THERE ARE STILL candles on the sidewalk where they shot him in the head two months ago — the big frosted-glass kind with Jesus on the side that you can buy at the Mexican grocery for ninety-nine cents. The flowers are fresh. The giant photo of him is still visible as you pass by in the team van, but the laminate is peeling from the top right corner, the weather starting in.
The youth and community center in South Central Los Angeles, where you coach basketball, is a block-long, two-story concrete bunker funded by the Salvation Army. By day, two hundred kids attend day-care and after-school programs. By night, fifty high-schoolers and young adults lift weights, browse the Internet, take music lessons, and hang out in the social core of the whole neighborhood, the gymnasium. The center looks a little different from every other nonresidential building around here. It’s the lack of graffiti that makes it stand out. No tagging on any of the outside walls, only a scrawl or two on the alley side.
They’re at the center all the time. You’ve really got to keep the two of them straight, but it’s difficult. They’ve got the same face, down to the pimples along the jaw line. They’re both taller than you, the older one by at least five inches. The younger’s a bit quieter, but when he does speak, it’s with the same inflection and rhythm. So you take a guess: “Hey, Rye-Rye, what’s up?”
“I know how we all look the same to you, Tim-Tim, but you can call him ‘Rye-Rye,’ me ‘CJ.’ ”
“You’re kidding. Really?”
“We’d appreciate it.”
“He means I’d appreciate it,” says Rye-Rye. “He dreams he was me.”
“With your chicken arms? I’m twice you already. Tell him, Coach. Tell him CJ’s your starting center, long as someone helps you tell us apart.”
No exaggeration: you fear helicopters. On a good day, driving south down the 110 to work, you don’t see any over South Central. On a fair drive into work you don’t see any to your left, the East Side. On a bad day there are three news teams and two police choppers in the air above Fremont High School (the building with metal detectors at the front entrance, steel grates on every window, and a fifteen-foot-high wrought-iron fence surrounding it) because a Mexican kid hit a black kid in the cafeteria, and the black kid’s friends joined in, and then so did the Mexican kid’s friends, and soon pretty much all the kids in the school were involved, and the 77th Station officers had to call the riot squad, with their helmets and shields, and now it’s a lockdown, and there’s no basketball practice at the center today, because no one’s getting out of school until their guardian arrives, and, well, that’s going to take a while, if.
You can’t pay attention to the actors on the screen. You should have been more patient at basketball practice today. You shouldn’t have closed the weight room so dramatically. Was this the first water-bottle fight in the history of the world? What did those kids do after you booted them from the center? Tomorrow you’ll have to start out right, maybe plan a three-point shootout or a barbecue or —
“Hey! Where’d you go?” your girlfriend asks, pulling you back into your apartment, back into Echo Park. “Be here,” she says. “With me.”
The action on the court is lively. Santwaan’s already dunked twice, Jeremy is reigning in the lane, and everyone’s playing defense for once. But the real show’s in the stands, where CJ is sitting this one out: CJ the sun. CJ, shit-talker extraordinaire, delivering a medley of boasts and taunts. Something for everybody:
“Tonio, you little bug-eyed fly child, look at you. Probably seeing two thousand of me — watch out!
“Rigo, Rigo, Rigo. Shit, Rigo, you white, man. Just face it. Tim-Tim more Mexican than you!
“Candy. Nice belt, Candy. And they was saying, Who’s gonna keep K-Mart in business?
“Curtis! Curtis! Look at your grill, homeboy — like you hate toothpaste!
“Miles, oh, my, Miles. Got your shoelaces tied around your ankles? Reebok making skates now?
“Shari, Shari, it’s ok. Don’t nobody but us two know what happened last night. Don’t you worry. . . . I’m just playing! Just playing!
“Tim-Tim. Look at those ears, people. How much your ears weigh, T.? Just think — lose them and you’d be dunking! No, really, my bad, my bad, T. We just playing — but, honestly, what they saying downtown right now? I bet you can hear the ocean.”