Randall did demo jobs in Orange County, at the Artesia Mall, at an Albertsons in Barstow – wherever his bosses sent him. The foreman saw him working and said, ‘Randall, you do it without wheels like the Egyptians did it.’

Randall had no major felonies. He had done a small amount of dirt, but nothing spectacular. A gang background when he was barely in junior high.

He met Jane when she was eating cotton candy with her family on the Redondo Pier. She was dressed like him in a wife-beater, Dickies and high white socks.

When he finally got her on a date and got her alone, she said, No, don’t – and then yielded to him immediately.

She moved in with him in San Pedro and stayed home watching TV with the door open for air and the gate shut for security. And she was his secret while he went to work and stripped floors using a six-foot iron bar. On his way home, he took his check to the check cashing place and paid some bills and then went home and she jumped up off the couch in her boxers and let him in.

Long voyages are in Randall’s blood, he thinks. His people sailed across the Pacific on their rafts. They also made war on other clans and probably hunted heads, like those daguerreotype photos you must have seen of expressionless naked men kneeling by their headless kill. As a kid, he played video games and roughhoused on the beach and joined a gang. They were Chicano-Polynesian. Hey, konnichi wa, baby, can I get your nombre? His cousins stole cars, lived the straight-up gangsta life. Even the ones who were nice guys – who held jobs as welders, roofers and mechanics – were people you did not want to mess with. They were homeys for life and they were all down for each other, he told Jane.

A funny story:

He dropped off his car at a Pinoy garage one time in Pedro and this big dude Willy, a cousin, came out and looked it over. When it came time to take the tires off, Randall couldn’t loosen one of the lug nuts and told Willy it was frozen. Willy said, ‘Let me see.’ After a mighty effort, Willy got the nut to move. He turned to Randall and grinned: ‘You need to eat more beans!’

Jane was a pretty, overweight girl who did not like to talk about herself. Eventually, Randall learned about her family situation. She had five siblings and they had all been in foster care. Her brother had warrants and had been in jail. Her big sister had been sexually assaulted when she was twelve. Her younger sister was mentally ill and lived in a shelter. Her younger brother was homeless out in northern Florida near the Georgia border.

She told Randall that her mother had called her a slut for wearing make-up.

Jane carried a great deal of resentment against her mother. She said her mom hated her because her father ‘spent too much time with her’.

Randall kissed her, which Jane appreciated, but she deflected his hand from her firm brown leg.

‘Parents!’ Randall commiserated. ‘My moms would whip us if she got mad enough. She’d say I acted like I thought she was born two hours ago, not forty-two years ago. She didn’t speak the best English. She believed in whole milk only. She said, “Skim milk no good.” ’

‘At home,’ Randall went on, ‘My moms drives an Avalanche with two big F’s in the window, saying Family First.’

Regarding his family, Randall said: ‘I had a big family. My brother and me used to be so poor . . . We’d go to the beach and use these concrete weights to exercise. See this?’ He pulled back his lip. He was missing a tooth from dropping a weight on himself when he was younger. Jane put her finger in the square dark space with his hot breath tunneling through it and touched his gum.

He had said ‘when he was younger’, but he was young. They both were.

Randall did her laundry for her when she felt sad. He had been doing laundry since he was six and had by now developed his own formula. He had a plastic bottle – a rinsed-out Sunny Delight bottle with the label removed – that he filled with a mixture of liquid detergent and Suavitel. He used another vessel, which had once contained a half gallon of Ocean Spray apple juice, to hold laundry powder. Standing over the machine, he would add a scoop of powder, a bit of pearl blue liquid to the wash, get everything just right, like a chemist. ‘Nice and sudsy,’ he’d said. ‘For my Pinay Princess.’

‘Don’t say that,’ she said, and when pressed for a reason why, she said that such endearments unsettled her.

He sought to cure her of her depression, even going so far as to offer to pray with her. But she said that she had already tried an oración. Jane had gone back to the Philippines after the flood to see her grandma in Luzon. Her entire village stood on stilts above the water. She showed Randall pictures of the jungle on her cell phone. Her pipe-smoking grandmother was a healer and a loan shark. The people called her a five-six, because she lent you five and you paid her back six.

‘When she saw me, she took me into this house and made me lie down on a bamboo bed thing and she did a whole ceremony over me. She told me I was really sick, and it was weird; whatever she did to me, it made me fall asleep, like I was only half-conscious, like I was in a dream. When I woke up, she gave me a charm – an anting-anting – these crocodile teeth in a leather bag.’

But her grandmother’s treatment had not worked, and if a remedy like that wasn’t going to help her then, Jane felt, maybe nothing would.

What about church? Randall asked. The Christian God had made a difference in his life.

‘But you listen to Black Sabbath.’

‘I do but, believe it or not, Ozzy Osbourne is a good Christian father.’

‘I thought he ate a bat.’

‘Bit, not ate.’

‘You know that’s gross.’

‘My brother went to the penitentiary. It was scary going to visit him. He was always a good guy, but he was around the wrong people and so there he is. He said, “Look at me. Don’t let this be you.” That was a big lesson for me to stop going down the wrong path, and I started going to church.’

Randall had gone to a storefront church (Pentecostal) where the congregation sat in folding metal chairs like at an AA meeting and several men and women in all-white suits patrolled around the aisles, clapping and singing and eyeing them, as if to say, ‘You better be clapping too.’

‘Christianity was forced on us,’ Jane remarked, one of the few times that she revealed any awareness of, or sympathy with, the Filipino tribal nationalism that formed such a big part of Randall’s environment.

‘I’ve never heard you say that before,’ he said.

She threw him a gang sign. He couldn’t tell if she was making fun of him.

‘You’re so funny,’ he told her. ‘Who are you?’

‘I’m me,’ she said.

They held each other face-to-face on the couch, teasing and play-fighting. The contact affected him, and he asked if he could lead her to the bedroom. She whispered with a little song in her voice, ‘Of course.’

In their king-sized bed, she kneeled like a boar or a panther.

She confessed to him how deeply she had fallen for him. ‘I admired you from the beginning. You know you’re worth something.’

‘Everybody’s worth something,’ he said, but she did not answer. But she was open with him physically, yielding to him, almost swooning.

He was sure that this time in bed they had reached another level of understanding.

After they had gone back out to the couch, he told her, ‘You’ve got to leave your family. They’re your devils. Just let go and come with me. In the olden days, I would have come to your village and taken you away in a canoe. Come with me and sail away. You can forget all the things that are bothering you.’

He watched her face in profile, trying to see if he was getting through to her. She turned on the TV.

‘Do you want to come with me?’

She didn’t answer.

‘Can you even hear me?’

‘I am with you,’ she said.

‘No, you’re not.’

 

*

 

A carpenter’s assistant named Danny, who bragged incessantly about doing jail time, started picking on Randall until finally Randall picked up a hammer and yelled, ‘I’ll tear you a new asshole, buddy!’

The electricians, one of whom was a preacher, got between them and separated them before someone got hurt.

In front of witnesses, Danny, in typical jailbird fashion, put the entire conflict on Randall, acting perplexed by his outburst and saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re going through, pal.’

Several days later, after Randall had allowed himself to believe that the incident was over and done with, he encountered Danny in one of the deserted back rooms of the Albertsons. The room was spotlit by halogen working lights and the Sheetrock walls had been torn away, exposing the bare two-by-four studs. The floor slab had been broken up into chunks of rubble, which they were expected to carry out in wheelbarrows. It was 2 a.m. and they were alone with their giant shadows cast by the halogen lights. Danny made a remark:

‘My homeboy knows your girl in Pedro.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘In Pedro, right?’ Danny said.

‘Yeah, we live in Pedro.’

‘So my homey knows her.’

‘Knows who?’

‘You know who.’

‘Who is it you think your boy knows? What’s her name?’

‘I’m not dealing with you crying again.’

‘I wasn’t crying. And I won’t be crying, I guarantee you. If you think you know something just tell me.’

‘Jane.’

‘That’s not her name,’ Randall said.

‘Yeah, right. Yeah, you know it is. See I told you.’

‘Told me what?’

‘That you’d get hurt.’

‘Why would I be hurt because you know somebody’s name?’

‘I thought you said that wasn’t her name.’

‘It isn’t.’

‘Then why are you crying?’

‘You need to stop fucking with me.’

Randall squared up to the man, but the ex-con, accurately sensing that Randall’s heart and will had been eviscerated, could not be threatened.

Randall quit his job, giving his bosses various excuses – that he had someone sick in the family, that his car had broken down, that he had had a better job offer somewhere else. For a time, he was angry with Jane, but would not say why. He stopped speaking to her. He insisted that she move with him to Imperial Beach, San Diego. When she asked why it was so necessary that they move, he turned on her: ‘Why can’t we go? Is there any reason we can’t leave here? Is there any reason you don’t like me home all day?’

They had a terrible fight and she abased herself, saying she had something to tell him. She bowed to him and told him he could kill her.

She insisted that he kill her with a knife from the kitchen.

‘I don’t care if you kill me,’ she said. ‘Please, Randall, I want you to kill me.’

‘Why?’ he asked. He was sitting on the couch unable to move. Kneeling before him, she remained silent and tears ran down from her closed eyes. ‘Did you cheat?’ he asked. Yes, she nodded, biting her lip, her eyes still closed.

‘I could kill somebody but not you,’ he whispered.

‘I have never revealed my true heart to anyone but you,’ she said. ‘That’s the truth.’

 

*

 

He confided in a man in his extended familia who said, ‘Yes, she is revealing herself, but be careful what kind of person she’s revealing.’

‘She’s a good person, a good spirit,’ Randall said.

‘If you say so, brother.’

His mother came up from Imperial Beach and sat with them individually and then called Randall back in after sending him away and sat with them both, holding both their hands and pronouncing them more whole than before, in the name of Bathalang and the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Randall’s mother rolled up her sleeves and showed her tattoos. She had one half of the sun on each arm. She made fists and put her arms together, making the sun complete.

‘Together, strong. You get it?’ she said. And she smiled. ‘Bless my loving children.’

‘I believe in our blade culture too,’ Jane said. ‘I’ve been affected like everybody else. Family affects everyone, I guess. I do believe in our ways after all. That’s why I’ve fallen for you, because you are Pinoy through and through, Randall. Nobody gets away from family, I guess. But I really admire people who don’t let it drag them down. You could have gone the same route as your brother – with all respect to him, but still. You could be dead or locked-up right now. I love that about you, that you’re not afraid to be a decent man, a family man. I admire your churchgoing, the way you carry yourself. It’s so easy to run around and be a thug. Are you really that brave if you’re running with a gang? No, it makes you a piece of shit. I think it takes more bravery to grow up and get a job and face life. That’s what’s really scary. You’re a real man, Randall,’ she said. ‘I know I’ve made it hard for you. I know I’ve hurt you deeply, and I just want to thank you for giving me another chance.’

 

*

 

This was the end of a hot sweaty summer that was also sad, lonely and frightening; it made him feel he had no friends in the world, nothing could protect him – because there was a hollowness at the core of their love. He couldn’t believe in her anymore. He was still very angry, and his anger had the terrible effect of making him renounce her. When he did that, he felt heartbroken and depressed. Occasionally he looked at other pretty girls and he felt relief imagining himself in a relationship with someone new and feeling for a moment that he was free of her. But he never talked to them, beyond one time when he was drunk down on the Redondo Pier, and the girl happened to be white and did not appeal to him. Every word she spoke made him lonelier for Jane. He excused himself and got in his red Civic with its black hood and drove home, expecting that she would be grateful to see him and ready to give him some sign that she acknowledged his commitment, that she would offer him some gesture of commitment in return; but she was gazing at her phone.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘Who are you sexting?’ He grabbed her phone out of her hand and was going to break it.

She was defiant at first, demanding that he return it, but when she learned why he was upset, she started crying. She said, ‘Please don’t! Randall, don’t break my phone. It cost me a thousand dollars. Please, I’m begging you.’ And then when he shouted at her, she buried her face in her hands and said, ‘Okay, break it. I’m sorry.’ And then she curled up with her knees drawn in to her chest on the floor. She lay there crying for ten minutes, her sobbing turning into moaning, as if she had fallen from the roof and broken her back, and then she went silent and unresponsive.

‘You’ve got a beast inside you,’ he said eventually.

‘Don’t talk to me,’ she uttered in a voice suddenly so dry, emotionless and impersonal it raised the hair on his neck.

She lay on the midnight blue carpet until he came over and, with effort in spite of his strength, picked her up in his arms and carried her to their king-sized bed. She was physically hot and soaked in sweat. He pulled her clothing off and had intercourse with her, which she did not resist and responded to intensely.

After this, the spirit of the household felt as if it had been put right again.

 

*

 

Three months later, when the temperature started dropping to forty degrees Fahrenheit after sundown and the overland wind carried the hint of mesquite fire from the great hills, her family came back from the Philippines to attend a barrio fiesta in the South Bay. Her sister was getting married to a guy she had ‘been with’ for an unspecified period of time (Randall never learned if this was two weeks or two years), and the family would celebrate the wedding, which had been timed to coincide with their visit.

Randall drove Jane to Palos Verdes where the wedding was being held and drove back to San Diego for work the next morning.

He was helping out as general labor refurbishing a barge docked at the Tenth Avenue Terminal in the Port of San Diego, chipping rust off the deck, painting the rigging. The barge had a five-thousand-square-foot deck and enough of this area had to be freed of corrosion to make the task seem endless, especially when the device used to dig out the rust was no bigger than an electric toothbrush, a pneumatic hammer that fired bristles against the deck surface. In the long period while he was holding the hammer over a single spot of eroded metal, his mind would cast them off the dock and sail him and the barge out to sea.

And now that they were free, where would they go? Up to LA to get her, to take her back from her family.

After work, he didn’t take his exit home. He spent twenty minutes sailing the Civic on the highway, maneuvering around other vehicles, working the shifter like a steering oar. He got off at Fourth Avenue in Chula Vista, drove past torn-to-shit yards with pit bulls running free on the grass and Chicano garages. Two long blocks later, in the four o’clock sunshine, he happened on a gym that headquartered a well-known MMA fight team, flying a flag with a stylized eagle-crown motif that evoked the Iron Cross. He went inside, paid twenty dollars and pounded on a heavy bag for a long time. The sun shone across the street, but the gym was a cold cinder-block warehouse immersed in blue shadow and he felt trapped here. A Brazilian jujitsu class took place on the red mats behind him. He did not stop working the bag until after they had disbanded and gone to the locker rooms dragging their sopping kimonos, which gave off a distinctive Clorox-y sweat stink.

When he left, the pretty black-haired girl behind the counter said goodnight to him; she gave him a thumb-and-pinky surfer wave, and he wondered if she was Filipina.

Sitting alone and sealed in his car, he stared out at the floodlit sections of brightness, the distant gas stations in the big dark, and tried to orient himself toward home.

 

*

 

On Monday night she texted him to say that she was taking the bus down from LA and asked him to pick her up. She was getting in at midnight. He did not want to leave her in the station at that hour, but when was he going to sleep? He went to the station and the bus arrived and she was not on it. He waited until 1.30 a.m. when her bus finally came in. She just wanted to go home. She did not feel good. He had to work in a couple hours but she evinced displeasure when he stopped at 7-Eleven for a chicken salad sandwich. He wanted to get them coffee, too. Sometimes it’s easier to stay awake than sleep. ‘No it’s not,’ she said. She had brought her pillow with her on the bus. She climbed the porch carrying it. She just wanted to go to sleep.

‘What’s going on with you?’

‘I didn’t have a good time.’ She said that her sister was ‘acting as if everything was okay suddenly’ and was ‘phony’. All her family members were phony, all running around spreading fake love, uttering the Pinoy greeting mabuhay. She threw herself down in their bed and said, ‘Just let me sleep.’

‘I’m going to get like one hour of sleep. Why do you need to sleep? You’re not going to work. I’m going to work tomorrow and I’m going to be dragging heavy shit around all day and I can still find the energy to talk to you.’

She became frighteningly angry. She raised her tangled hair from the pillow like a lion and leaped up and strode around the room.

‘You want me awake, now you’ve got it!’

Randall, afraid of what she might do, got up and tried to hold her moving shadow but she shoved him off, hitting him in a flurry on the chest, arms and leg. ‘Touch me and I’ll scream,’ she seethed. ‘Help!’ she yelled. ‘Heeeelp!’

‘Are you crazy?’ he asked. She ignored him. It was three o’clock in the morning and their neighbors were hearing this. Through the window, he could hear a voice speaking Spanish, coming from across the backyard.

‘Do you know what’s going to happen if the cops come? You think that’s going to help us?’

‘You’re the one who wanted to talk. You couldn’t just leave me alone.’

‘Leave you alone? I’m the only one who loves you.’

‘See how much you love me when I’m not giving you what you want!’ she shouted and ran to the dresser, the one piece of furniture in the bedroom, and tried to shove it over, but its center of gravity was too low. It tipped on its carved wooden base before slamming down flat again. The lamp on top of the dresser fell.

Randall grabbed her around the waist, picked her up and threw her down on the bed and pinned her. She was an angry thing that frightened and enraged him; nothing but cold hostility existed between them; there was no carnal meaning or possibility between them now.

What incensed him most: she was keeping him up all night; he was going to have a hard day at work; he had already annoyed his boss by asking for time off to drive her to LA; he would like to call in sick after tonight, but if he did, his boss would think he was a flake; Randall would lose his trust. This thought reminded Randall directly of the humiliation he had suffered at his last job. She had cost him that job. And she had done so because she had wronged him.

Now she was fighting him, scratching his arms and reaching for his face. He pinned her neck to the mattress with one hand and told her, ‘I’m close to knocking you out.’

‘Go ahead,’ she said. And she started crying, but he didn’t care.

Randall climbed off her, flipped on the light switch and the bulb of the lamp that had fallen popped with a blue-white spark-flash and went out. In the shadow, he tried to straighten up the disarrayed bedroom. He was in a burned-out desolate state, his filament broken too. He was thinking, What does anything matter?

She was sitting on the bed, facing away.

‘You’re not going to do anything else crazy, are you?’ he shouted at her curved back. And she shook her head, no. ‘I can’t hear you,’ he badgered. ‘No,’ she said, lifelessly.

He thought he had been hearing voices for several minutes. When he left the bedroom, he saw a red reflection under the front door. He watched the door until someone pounded on it and said, ‘Police!’

 

*

 

Jane and Randall broke up after he went to jail. He got six months in Facility 8 from a judge who did not want to condone domestic violence, even though Jane would not testify against him and begged to take the charges back. She barely had a fat lip.

‘Please let him go. I caused it,’ she told the prosecutor, a white woman, who said, ‘It’s sad that you think you did.’

At County, Randall got to meet the cast of characters that his ex-con coworker had rhapsodized about: the woods, or peckerwoods (whites); the paisans (Chicanos); Chinos (Asians); and blacks. On his first night, he was attacked by five or six Latino inmates. When Randall asked to be transferred to a different unit, a sheriff’s deputy told him, ‘You deserve whatever you get in here.’ His connection to guys he used to know, like his cousin Willy, saved him. Using their names, he was able to ally himself with several Pacific Islanders who were members of the Satanas street gang.

When he got out, Randall posted on Facebook old pictures he had taken of Jane that were still in his phone – using them as revenge porn – along with her phone number. He wrote:

‘To all tha homeys on tha real watch out 4 this skeez. Green lite on this bitch cuz.’

Jane received a text on her phone of a naked man presenting his erect penis. It was the size of a nightstick. His face was cut-off but he had elaborate Pinoy tattoos on his shoulders, triangles that made her think of a jungle plant or interlocking teeth. She received a follow-up text from the same sender:

‘You like?’

Do I like? she thought. Do I like?

She turned her phone on herself and took a selfie.

‘Do you like me?’ she wrote.

Randall was in a gang now. Call one and they would all come.

 

Photograph © Werth Media

The Tattoo
Mz N Contemporary