Getting out (Part II)
‘Your grandma is worried about you. She thinks that you might get involved with your old friends.’
Carlos felt madness moving through his bones. He wanted to tell the foreman that no one talked to him like that.
Carlos returns to his hometown to start a new life
By Antonio C. de Baca
Editor’s note: We’re pleased to present the work of Antonio C. de Baca, who spent ten years in prison and is currently studying engineering at Boise State University. The following is the second of a series on getting out of prison by Mr. de Baca.
In last month’s opening episode, Carlos, fresh out of prison, is dropped off at the Greyhound bus station by the girlfriend of his only friend. He boards the bus and heads out for his former stomping grounds to begin a new life.
Carlos Ruiz had been on buses while in lockup, but always in shackles with an armed prison guard watching over him. The faces on this Greyhound looked so different from those he was used to seeing. Some of them even looked happy, not wearing the façade of hate that most prisoners tried so hard to project. And being on a bus filled with people of both genders, all dressed in different outfits, brought the reality of how free he was screaming to his senses. Carlos took the only empty seat on the crowded bus, hoping that that would give him time to get used to his surroundings.
How much of a change it was. He hadn’t heard or missed the keys of his jailers jiggling at their sides while they walked, or their radios blaring so everyone on the prison tiers could hear. And the one sound that he knew he wouldn’t miss was the slamming of those putrid blue steel doors—banging shut all day long. Just the sound of their constant ringing, after the steel doors had closed, could bring on the feeling of the insanity of the place.
But what he was most glad for was that he could stop living the lie that he’d lived behind those steel doors for so long. He had hidden the fact that he was scared shitless all the time. The best way to conceal one’s fright in prison was under the cover of rage. Everyone was tormented by something behind those walls; they did their best to portray themselves only as tough guys, not as frightened, caged men dreading others to see their true selves, which would invite others to prey on them like sharks circling, hungry for a taste of flesh.
Carlos’s eyes closed, dreaming that he hadn’t left that empty hole where he’d spent so much of his life.
Late that same night Carlos got off the bus in Stockton. The town of his birth. The town where he grew up. He didn’t know what to expect. He’d called his Abuelita’s house earlier, hoping for a ride home from the bus station, but no one answered. So he’d thought that he was going to have to walk home from the bus stop, buses not running and taxis too expensive.
Just as he was about to give up on a ride home, he noticed that his uncle Juan was standing nearby, next to a beat-up old Toyota truck, wearing overalls and dirty shirt, most likely soiled from working in the fields. His thin face, darkened from the sun, revealed a leather-like complexion. He might have looked like Carlos at one time, but years of hard work destroyed any good looks he might have had. Still, it was a face that brought relief, a face with no malice. They hugged. His uncle had never worked a dishonest job in his whole life and deserved so much more than the pennies he earned working in the farm fields.
But Carlos was proud of his uncle because all of his money went to a good cause—to support his family. He was the kind of person Carlos needed to be around, not like his drug-dealing, murderous, so-called friends. His uncle was a good, hard-working man.
“Let’s get out of here,” his uncle said. They both got in, and drove down the dark streets of Stockton. “Your grandma is worried about you. She thinks that you might get involved with your old friends.”
“I told all of you that that was the old me! I ain’t going back to that place.”
“I should hope so. I’ve got you a job, you start tomorrow.” His uncle looked deep into Carlos’s eyes, burrowing into them. Carlos knew that it was an order he couldn’t refuse. But that was OK. It was better than some little fat cop ordering him.
Carlos didn’t want to go back to prison. Just thinking about it made his stomach turn. He hated the place. No matter how clean it was prison always smelled like ass. No matter how good a day a person might have in prison, violence and tension were always close at hand. Many times Carlos had built a weapon inside his cell, readying himself to kill—and why? Not to prove he was tough, not to show off, but because he was scared. Scared of other prisoners. And the only weapon he had for fear was violence.
Every time a 10-dollar-an-hour correctional officer made him feel less than human, every time he had to build a homemade knife, or some other weapon, to protect himself from his enemies, Carlos had told himself that prison life wasn’t for him, and when he got out, he’d never return. It was no easy life, and he was determined to leave it behind—for good.
And what was all that prison time for? A drug debt someone owed him. For drug money that wasn’t even real. How many times had he seen drug dealers get busted with thousands of dollars and then be left with nothing? They could barely raise the couple of thousand they needed to pay their lawyers while they were stuck behind bars with no deals or money coming in. Drug money looked and felt so real when it was sitting there in front of you. But where did it go?
And now that he was fresh out of prison, how was he going to stay out of the old lifestyle of ready cash, fine cars and women, and a steady flow of drugs? That was the question that kept coming to mind. And every time it came up, he told himself that he was going to do what it took to stay out of trouble, and out of prison. Over the years, while doing his time, all Carlos thought about was how his new life was going to be different—no more drugs or drug deals, no more prison blues. If he had to wash toilets for a living, he’d wash toilets, simple answer.
They pulled up in front of his grandma’s little green house, which looked smaller than the two-bedroom home it was, bars covering the door and windows. She was awake, opening the door.
She looked like she had aged 20 years, not the 10 Carlos had been gone. Her back hunched over more than he remembered. But her face still had the type of beauty that old age couldn’t touch. Not even her wrinkles could hide what was once there so pronounced, the beauty that his grandfather must have seen in her light brown eyes and reddish hair.
“Tiense hambre? You hungry?” she asked with her New Mexico accent; then she hugged him as strong as her feeble arms could hold him and she fed him rice and beans. Carlos did his best to try not to talk to her as she looked down at him at the dinner table. She was the one most disappointed in him going to prison. She was the one who had raised him, mostly by herself, thinking she raised him right. She did all she could, raising Carlos after his father was killed in a car wreck, and who knew where his mother was? His uncle tried to be there for him too, but he had his own troubles and money always seemed to be a part of them.
Even though she had so much trouble raising Carlos, her house never lacked food. She might have had difficulty getting money for his clothes, but food was always on the table. Of course Carlos still remembered other kids laughing at his clothes, which he got at the Goodwill store. After he beat up the first couple of kids who laughed at him, the teasing stopped. There was never extra money in his grandma’s house and the more he thought about it the more he realized that’s why he turned to dealing drugs, and joining a gang just made it easier to get the drugs to sell and the money he’d never had before. The gangs brought money and respect.
And as soon as he was done eating he went to his old room. It was the first time in years he had a room of his own, where he could come and go whenever he wanted. It felt different, at first, lying down on his bed, with no cellie or guards or loudspeakers. I’ll get used to it, he told himself.
The thing he couldn’t get use to was that his future was a void.
His uncle woke him early, giving him just enough time to get ready and eat. They drove in silence to a construction site close to downtown Stockton, where his uncle introduced him to the foreman, Pablo.
Pablo was a Chicano larger than Carlos and his uncle combined. The man’s belly made up most of his size, but he carried his weight as if it wasn’t there. Pablo didn’t shake Carlos’s hand or look him in the eye. Pointing the way a cop would, he ordered, “I want you to start moving those boards from there to the back of those trucks!” Carlos felt madness moving through his bones. He wanted to tell the foreman that no one talked to him like that, especially someone who didn’t have a badge, but his uncle’s arm touched his back and he relaxed a little, realizing that the foreman probably didn’t know what he was saying. Or maybe Carlos had misinterpreted the foreman’s words? He let it go. His uncle Juan left him a bag lunch and went off to his own job in the farm fields, leaving Carlos to fend for himself at the new job site.
The day wore on, and the San Joaquin Valley was just as he remembered it, hot. Always sweltering more than the rest of California, if not the rest of the country. Sweat ran down his face like droplets on an ice-cold glass of water. It was the toughest day he had worked in his life. Carlos remembered the days he got paid a couple of thousand just for moving a few of kilos of cocaine across town. But all that money didn’t make the easier task of transporting drugs worth the risk of going to prison, he reminded himself; he had to change.
Carlos ate lunch with the Mejicanos on the work site. There were no other Chicanos that he could sit with and talk to. He didn’t mind hanging out with Mejicanos; just because they were born and raised in Mexico didn’t make them bad. But Carlos was born and raised in the United States, just like the rest of his family. They were here way before this land was even called the United States, just like most Chicanos, even though some still treated them like they just crossed over the border.
Carlos liked most of the Mejicanos he met. He even hung out with a few of them in prison. But there was too much of a culture difference between him and the Mejicanos. Very few of them spoke English, and if they did it was always broken, and Carlos’s Spanish wasn’t that great. So, in prison Carlos mostly hung out with Chicanos, even though problems came with that. Most Chicanos, like Carlos, joined one gang or another, and that meant they were going to be an ally or an enemy. Unlike the Chicanos who flocked to one prison gang or another, the Mejicanos just flocked to other Mejicanos. Being from Mejico was probably more important to them than belonging to a gang. So in prison Carlos never felt like Mejicanos were potential enemies, just people trying to do their time.
Yet, even sitting here among the Mejicanos at work he felt alone, his Spanish was nowhere close to being equal to their rapid talk. Carlos just listened the best he could to what they said between themselves. He also wondered why he was the only Chicano among them. Did all the other Chicanos have better jobs? Did the Mejicanos only work here because they couldn’t find better work somewhere else? Probably, the Mejicanos working here were illegal. From listening to their Spanish he had his feelings about the matter, and he was sure that a few of them wouldn’t want to be asked to show their green cards.
The day got cooler as it came closer to quitting time. Carlos’s own body odor smelled rancid to him. It made him feel like a speed freak on a week runner, not showering that whole time. Carlos wasn’t used to being dirty and sweaty. But he forced himself on, knowing that this was the start of his new life, perspiration and all. The only problem was that working like a wetback wasn’t what he imagined for himself after getting out of prison. He pictured himself in a cool office making 20 bucks an hour, telling others what to do. But then again, at least he was free. §
Antonio C. de Baca spent 10 years in the Idaho State Prison. He attends Boise State University, where he writes and studies engineering. He is the recipient of an honorable mention for fiction from the PEN American Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Read "Getting out (Part I) here: