Cruz Medina

Feb 2011


Judas on the Cross

Shortly after my mom left, my father disappeared into the garage, emerging only when he had completed the cross as his testament to our loss. With strained arms out at his sides, he watched traffic rushing beneath him. “Everyone has their cross to bear Judas,” he often told me, after the sun had set and he was no longer visible to drivers. “I just want to remind the world.”

Every Sunday afternoon, after he and I came home from mid-day mass, my father would change into his tattered jeans. He had cut the right pant leg above the knee so that the surgical scars from where the aluminum prosthetic met the flesh were exposed. His labored grunts counted the steps it took into our backyard overlooking the freeway. He climbed up the sheet of wood that he used as a ramp up to the grayed, upside down milk crate affixed like a platform. Standing on the ancient wood, my father leaned his back up against the ten foot tall cross that looked over the back wall. He faced the cars rushing eastbound on the freeway a hundred feet below. Constructed from a couple of rotted railroad ties hammered together with two by fours, the cross stood imposing at the top of the sloping hillside, beneath the gray haze of the smog filled sky.

Still, I felt like the one most reminded by my father’s cross. At school, even after I’d been telling everyone to call me ‘Jude’ since the sixth grade, I became known in high school as the ‘Christ on the Cross’ guy. It was a bad nickname as far as nicknames went, but the kids at my Los Angeles Unified high school were neither angels, nor were they kids who thought it a big deal to say something witty. You either said something fast, ready to throw a punch, or you got nicknamed ‘Christ on the Cross guy.’

“I know it’s been hard on you since your mother left,” my father said, dishing black beans onto his plate from an ancient ceramic bowl with chipped edges. “But the accident was a sign for us to rededicate our lives, to be born back into the church. And you are becoming a man, and a man has to put away childish things to completely transform into a man.”

I prodded the wrinkled skin of the pescado entero with the pronged tips of my fork, the broiled fish eye looking up at me. My mom used to make me macaroni and cheese with the elbow pasta that curved to my tongue as I tried to whistle through the center.

“Yes father,” I said. “And if we feel bad, we must remember that our Lord God tested Job, and that we will be likewise tested in order to be worthy of entering the House of the Lord.”

My father set the ceramic bowl down, watching me out of the corner of his eyes. “That’s right, son,” he said.

We continued to eat in silence with the eyes of the Virgin of Guadalupe looking heavenward across from us, on the wall above the dining room table. The red and blue of her head covering rested beneath a thin layer of dust, giving the holy mother a slight gray tinge. On both sides of the wall next to the Blessed Santa Maria, there were empty holes in the tan wall where nails had hung a grainy picture of my parent’s wedding and a cheesy family portrait. In it, I had been wearing a sweater vest that was itchy even though my mom had said it made me look handsome. Still, her fair skin had glowed in contrast to the brown shades of my father and me. It might’ve been for that reason that my father used to call my mom his little güerita.

She told me, “I don’t see any difference between my white skin and yours, except that your tan skin is perfect.”

All I knew was that my brown skin hadn’t felt good in the itchy sweater vest. And all that remained of those images were the jagged spots on the wall to each side of the portrait of Guadalupe like phantom stigmata.

“Jude, what do you think?”

“Huh?” I said. The class erupted with cackles. I was staring out the classroom window at a hummingbird flittering around the empty quad.

“I asked you what you thought were some of the differences between the movie Motorcycle Diaries and the book?” Ms. Gloriana repeated. She was my English teacher, and her class was probably the only one that I didn’t mind sitting through. She was young, and pretty in a way that she tried her best to hide—my dad said she was “one of those women who went to college and thinks she’s on a mission from a liberal, she-God.” He said this after I told him that Ms. Gloriana suggested I think about college because I did well in her class.

“I thought the movie looked real nice,” I said. “But all the music and action made it hard to listen to Che’s words, or that Gael guy saying Che’s words.”

“And why is it so important to hear Che’s words?” Ms. Gloriana said.

“I don’t know. It’s like he sounds happy because it’s like he’s writing postcards to his mom.”

“Would you say that he sounds ‘hopeful’ amid all of the tragedy around him?” Ms. Gloriana asked, an eyebrow rising from behind her thick-framed glasses.

“Maybe Miss,” I said. “Maybe it was because he felt like she was the only one to really understand him.”

A few students snickered. Ms. Gloriana waived for the kid with dyed black hair and tight pants in the back row to be quiet. “He sounds happy even though he knows his dad won’t be happy with him when he doesn’t return to med school,” I said.

“And what’s also important to remember about Che’s mother,” Ms. Gloriana said, “is that she is a positive representation of a real Latina woman, not like the Malinche mierda that says a woman can only be a virgin or prostitute.”

A few of the kids in the class snickered when Ms. Gloriana said ‘mierda,’ but they didn’t laugh because it wasn’t cool to laugh at what teachers said. Just like it was only cool to say that everything was ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ in that sing-song that was neither laughing nor teasing.

Ms. Gloriana smiled and looked at me as though I might have something to say that might sound half as smart as the teacher things she said. I squinted as I thought of something. The other kids in the class began shuffling books and bags, zipping zippers like a miniature orchestra of kazoos.

“Peg-leg on the cross.” Some guy yelled from behind me. Exaggerated laughter swept over the room like a white noise soundtrack to the boring movie that was life. And this is the voice over, but my mom wasn’t Che’s.

When the class bell rang for lunch, I waited as usual for all of the other kids to leave first. There was no point in getting out of class before everyone; I brought the same tuna fish snack pack every day. Besides, even the friends I used to eat with in middle school spent the lunch period with the rest of the band kids. The only secular musical instrument my dad would let me play was the accordion. And not even East Los Angeles High wanted my accordion playing.

“Have a good lunch Judas,” Ms. Gloriana said with a smile. Her face was friendly and warm when the other students weren’t around.

I smiled as best I could. Not sure what to say, I asked, “Miss, is it hard to be a teacher?”

She stopped straightening a stack of papers, her heading craning to one side.

“Sometimes,” she said. “I don’t think every student understands how much it hurts them when they don’t have a good education. And I think some smart students get down on themselves because no one around them expresses support or any hope for their future.”

Much to my dismay, I had already closed all of the pockets on my backpack, and had to leave.

“You should have kids Ms. Gloriana,” I said as I walked out. When I got outside in the quad, I found myself wondering why I had said that. Maybe it’s because there were plenty of people who were parents who didn’t say the right things to kids.

The salty mixture of hamburger, pizza and French fry grease wafted into the quad as I walked between the cafeteria building and the windows where older women exchanged crumpled dollar bills with students for Styrofoam trays. I kept my head down as I wheeled my backpack over cracks in the cement and the Chuck Taylor tennis shoes that stepped past me. A paper container of French fries whizzed by me. It splattered against the faded brick wall behind me, flecks of fry bouncing off my back. I didn’t look up. I kept walking. If you looked at the ground, then you were less likely to be stopped.

“Why does everybody mess with that kid so much?” A girl said. “He never stands up for himself.”

“Huh ha, stand up for himself. Now you’re making fun of his dad too.”

With my head down, my eyes followed the exaggerated lettering tagged on the concrete in chalk.

“His dad cuts his hair.” A voice said.

“Look at how he dresses.” Another voice said. “Every day it’s the same ratty blue sweatshirt and jeans.”

Walking down the blacktop path to the sports fields, I could feel the faces of the kids in the band straining to look at each other or hide under long bangs, pretending I wasn’t there for the seconds it took me to pass them by.

On the metal bleachers, covered in permanent marker gang tags, in front of the baseball diamond, full of dry patches and crab grass, I pulled out my lunch. From not too far away, I could hear a couple voices. A guy who used to go to my church was in the dugout across the field. From the same direction, I could smell a sweet burning like the incense that the priests swung through the aisles of pews on his way to the altar.

From the clear, plastic container, I opened the pull-tab can of tuna; with the pinkie-sized wooden spoon that came in the pack, I stirred in the condiments from the metallic pouches into the packed chunks of tuna. Careful not to break the cracker, I smashed a gob of warm mayonnaise and tuna on top and put the whole thing in my mouth, trying not to taste the familiar tin flavor. I chewed and swished the dry fishy combination around my mouth. I spread more tuna over another cracker, emptying the last of the mayonnaise.

“Hey ese, what are you looking at?” An unfamiliar voice yelled from the dugout on the other side of the baseball diamond.

I pretended not to hear the raspy voice, staring instead at the gray and white mixture of tuna. It seemed to be replacing itself as though the can were inexplicably producing more cubes of fish than could fit in the one can of tuna; the same thing happened with the crackers—the more I ate, the more crackers there were. It was like the miracle of the bread loaves and few fish to feed thousands from the books of Mark and Matthew. It was a sign of Jesus’ compassion for those who followed him.

“Hey ese, I’m talking to you.” The voice grew louder. It was stalking across the batter’s box. “You some kind of narc or something? I don’t know you homey. You going to go snitch ‘cause I’m smoking reefer?”

“Man, ignore that clown. That’s Judas Christ on the Cross—he’s a nobody homes.” The skinny guy from church said.

The shadow of the first voice continued approaching. Looking away from the holy miracle, I wondered if my mother would come back. Had I passed the test of my father’s accident and her leaving?

A dark-skinned pelon with a mustache in a white tank-top undershirt came around the chain link fence in front of the bleachers where I sat.

“What are you looking at homes? You don’t know me. I’m from Crenshaw High ese.” He pushed me. The tuna dropped on the dirt ground below the bleacher.

“I received the sign that I was waiting for,” I said, my eyes still fixed on the tuna a foot below me, spilled out on the earth.

“I don’t care if you’re crazy vato—I’m crazier. I don’t care about nothing.”

I leaned forward to pick up the tin can.  A jolt exploded in my face in what felt like a grisly rock catching the left side of my temple.

“Don’t stomp him homes—his dad is a loco peg-leg guey.” The familiar voice, a few steps in the distance shouted. “He ain’t got no job ‘cause he got a metal stump ese.”

“I don’t care about anything. Screw his dad! Forget the world homey!” A punch landed on the other side of my forehead.

“And his mom’s a pinche güera.”

My head rattled.

“A güera? I don’t get to beat up güera babies very often.” The pelon laughed in a deranged, goofy giggle.

I looked up and saw a skinny guy, the one I’d seen at church. He was laughing while motioning to hold the shaved head guy back.

“Get off me homes.” The big guy shoved the skinny guy. He turned and kicked me in the chest with the bottom of his shoe. I tumbled back, over the bleachers and on to a patch of dusty ground.

“You can tell everyone I don’t care who I stomp. I don’t care if the brown bastard’s mom is white or if his dad is a pinche gimp. No me importa guey.”

Saliva sprayed across my face. It absolved me. It was okay if I didn’t get up.

“Crenshaw ese, representing. Ain’t nobody going to mess with me again.” I closed my eyes, bracing as kicks continued to come down on my legs, body, shoulders arms and head.

No one would believe the miracle I had witnessed. But my mom might still change her mind, even if it meant her dad no longer gave us money. We could work it out. It could be like before the accident. That’s what the fish meant—she wouldn’t give up on me. I’d make myself worthy of love.

“Hey!” A loud voice rang across the empty field.

A school proctor came running down the blacktop as a group of band kids looked on. The pelon wielded back and kicked me in the stomach, adding another boot to my ribs as the large black man in a yellow windbreaker shouted for him to stop. The large man brought his walkie-talkie to his mouth, saying something garbled as he neared.

“I don’t care. Do you know who I am?” The shaved head guy with tattoos raised his hands in the air. The black proctor ran towards him. The pelon kept his hands in the air, turning his palms out. “Take me in—I don’t care.”

With each blow, there was pain—pain like morning my dad woke and found the note on the refrigerator saying we couldn’t survive off disability and the money from her job. We needed her father’s money.

A loud, static squelch buzzed as the proctor cocked back his fist and brought the radio down across the pelon’s head. Batteries sprang out, hitting the dry earth in little plops, seconds before the tattooed guy toppled backwards. His legs buckled, and he wobbled, hitting the ground beside me with a scuttle of dust.

The proctor held his large hand out for me to grab. It enveloped my fingers and pulled me to my feet. “God bless you,” I said.

When I’d rolled my backpack to the boy’s locker room, in the bathroom without lights, mirrors, toilet paper and paper towels, away from the crowd of band kids, I tried to clean the blood from my nose and busted lip. Tears streaked the brown dust on my cheeks as I knocked the dirt from my blue sweatshirt.

That night at dinner, my dad laid a piece of smoked salmon a top a square of flatbread, keeping his eyes on his plate. Though they were averted from me, I could see his eyes were puffy and red.

“You learn anything…today, in school?” he said. His spoke low, stuttering his words.

I had been in the office when the secretary called him at home. She had to wait while he crossed the house to answer the phone, dragging what was left of his right foot. I watched as the vice principal apologized to him for what had happened. I didn’t like to hear my father cry when he knew that he was helpless.

I looked across the table at Guadalupe’s frightened eyes.

“We just learned that Che’s father was disappointed in him,” I said, “when Che gave up becoming a doctor to help the poor indios.”

Across my father’s dark brow, lines of wrinkles formed.

“I guess it’d been different if Che’d been a woman,” he said. “Especially a white woman, ‘cause white daughters always do what their white fathers say. Che güera would’ve freed the little brown men and sent them checks to stay out of her life.”

I forked beans across the grains of rice splayed across my plate.

“Honor thy father and mother,” I said.

My father pushed himself back from the table, the bottoms of the wood legs scuffing the kitchen floor. The syncopated taps of the rubber stopper after his fork clanked on the plate. The sound of his old Ford starting in the driveway could be heard where I sat at the kitchen table.

I washed and dried both mine and my father’s plate, returning them back inside the cabinet. The silence inside the empty house weighed heavily like the transmission that slipped from its harness, pinning my father’s leg beneath if for hours in his mechanic’s bay until the day shift arrived. Opening the sliding glass door, I went out to the backyard. Like the crash of air whipped around in the rush of waves breaking on the coastline, the sound of traffic carried up the canyon. Stepping up onto the ramp, I looked down, climbing out onto the milk crate of the wood cross. I held my arms out, peering down at the cars as they passed from lane to lane. Most not using blinkers to let the others know of movements that could affect the lives in the lanes of cars around them.

Cruz Medina's fiction has appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine for Diverse Voices. His non-fiction has appeared in the San Diego Reader and 944 Magazine. He currently lives and writes in Tucson, AZ where he is earning his PhD in Composition, Rhetoric and the Teaching of English.