KEVIN SULLIVAN'S HANDS were slippery with his own blood.
They clutched at his throat as he gasped for air, listening to the screams all around him while he lay on the concrete driveway of a house in a gang-infested area of Carson, California. Voices mixed in with the screams, some of them calling his name and telling him to hold on, others saying that help was on the way, most of them begging God to spare his life. Silence and darkness quickly descended, and Sullivan accepted the inevitable as gravity took control of his hands and they fell away, allowing the blood to flow without obstruction.
It was 2:10 a.m. on May 6, 2006. At least forty people, most of them Black, were leaving a house party. Someone yelled, "Fuck you, putos! Get out of my hood! This is Dominguez Thirteen, West Side!" right before gunshots rang out. Everyone scattered at the first shot. People who reside in areas like this know the sound, their instincts to survive on autopilot.
Had Sullivan not been accustomed to the sound and moved slower, had he gone left instead of right, had he frozen in place, had he done anything other than try to save his life, he probably would have survived. But he died because he wanted to live, the fickleness of our existence revealing itself in the form of a random bullet that struck him exactly where needed to end his life.
Leonard Lloyd, aka Hoodlum, went to a nearby house afterward, where he bragged to Lorenzo Villicana about what he had done. Both men were members of Dominguez 13, a Mexican gang in Carson and the adjacent city of Long Beach. Lloyd had taken umbrage at a party given by Black people in the neighborhood. His answer was to fire a handgun indiscriminately at them.
The ensuing investigation was resolved when a witness identified him as being in the area at the time of the shooting. Villicana then broke the cardinal rule in his world: He testified for the prosecution.
“LET US GET SOME CHILI-CHEESE FRIES AND TWO CUPS OF WATER."
The cashier, a plump, dirty-blonde Mexican woman wearing a shade of purple lipstick and heavy makeup should have just asked the man if he wanted the usual when he walked up. She had a crush on him, but she didn’t want it to be too obvious, especially right now. Not with the woman standing next to him, glaring at her.
“That’ll be two seventy-five,” she said.
It was the week before Halloween, 2008. Lorenzo Villicana, aka LV, and Vanessa Malaepule had not long ago snaked their way through Santa Fe Avenue traffic on rusty bicycles with dirt-caked tires before arriving at Fantastic Burgers. Since LV had assisted in sending Leonard Lloyd to prison for forty years, they had been hiding out in one of two homeless encampments on the side of the 405 Freeway, not far from the restaurant.
“I got it, Vee,” LV said. “You got it last time.”
“You’re too slow, cabrón,” Vanessa said as she reached inside her bra and removed several crumpled-up one-dollar bills. She held three of them in front of her rather than extending them. The cashier frowned and leaned forward to get the money, her large breasts causing the restaurant logo on her shirt to disappear against the counter.
LV had been involved in gangs for well over half his life. He knew the possible consequences of testifying against Lloyd, but he did it anyway. It hadn’t been the first time he testified, either. But the first time, it was against a member of a different gang in another city. This time, he had testified against one of his own, and as a result his life had been turned upside down.
Although LV skirted the etiquette of the streets, he could not completely leave his old world behind. He was forty-four years old now, and he still wore typical homeboy attire: knee-length shorts, white tube-socks, and Nike tennis shoes with wife beaters, oversized T-shirts, and athletic jerseys.
Vanessa was an attractive Pacific Islander with beautiful long black hair. She dressed like LV and even talked like him. She had a charming smile when she chose to display it, which didn’t happen often as she and LV scowled in tandem most of the time. They had fallen in love over a pookie, a street term for a meth pipe based on the crackhead character played by Chris Rock in the movie New Jack City.
After getting the change and a receipt, they parked their bikes against the wall near the order window and sat down at one of four tables in front of the restaurant, watching traffic speeding by. There was a gas station on the corner, and a beer and wine store boasting of serving the coldest beer in Long Beach across the street. A Mexican-owned flower shop, a dry-cleaners, a barbershop, and a small Baptist church where drums, cymbals, and singing could be heard blocks away during the nightly services filled the remainder of the block.
The businesses were set up in a strip mall configuration and presented a rhythmic pattern to the urbanity of the area, a redundancy of despair for those forced to live there: strip mall, graffiti-marred apartment complex, strip mall, graffiti-marred apartment complex, continuing all the way south on Santa Fe to Cabrillo High School and the Long Beach Police Department's West Division Station a few miles away.
Several crows walked around an overflowing trashcan not far from the table where LV and Vanessa were seated. A bank of freestanding newspaper racks was close to them. The Long Beach Press-Telegram, La Opinión, and another paper advertising massage parlors were the selections. The latter had a picture of a nearly nude woman on the front page with ruby-red lips, enticing potential customers to choose pleasure over the news. LV wasn’t aware his eyes had already made his decision for him.
“Oh, you like that bitch, huh vato?”
“What? No, Vee! You know I only got eyes for you.”
Vanessa peered into them. No matter what state of mind he was in, they were always the same. He didn’t have the cliché “dreamy” eyes so often written about in dime-store romance novels, except when he was hitting the pookie, or when he was about to finish when they were doing the nasty. Then, they rolled back in his head until all you could see was the sclera.
“What’s up mi amor? Why you staring?”
“Nothing, ese. I’m just sitting here wondering why I love your whore ass so much.”
He glanced down at his crotch and then looked at her.
“You know why.”
Maybe this cabrón’s eyes are dreamy after all, she thought. I just can’t see them when it counts.
"I better not catch you fucking with any of these hood rats around here, pendejo. I’ll kill them all and cut that fucking thing off and feed it to the crows. And that includes that fat-ass cashier who keeps makin’ googly eyes at you.”
They both laughed, but LV knew how serious Vanessa was. She was jealous and would fight anyone for him. He had known from the first time he laid eyes on her that she was his soulmate, his ride-or-die chick, his endgame.
Vanessa was on the streets because she wanted to be. She had six children, who were being taken care of by family members at a house not far away in Carson. She could go there whenever she needed to; she could even live there if she would only stop using. But she loved LV as much as she loved getting high, so she stayed with him, even if it meant sleeping on the ground in a tent by the freeway.
LV picked up the receipt and looked at it.
He got up and took the food from the cashier, wondering how she wiped her ass with fingernails that long. He set it on the table and went back to get the two cups of water, napkins, and two plastic forks before sitting down to share the thick french fries slathered with chili and cheap government cheese with Vanessa.
“Do you think they still after you, babe?”
LV studied her plump light brown face, her dark eyes betraying the difficulties of their lives. She tried to act hard, as usual, but her face showed her concern. And she had good reason to feel this way. They both knew he was now a well-known snitch, a rata. But he thought he would be all right if he stayed away from his former gang. He had done what he did to survive, and above everything else, he was a survivor. If he had to testify against someone—a tinto no less—to get out of a pending criminal case he had for selling meth, then it was a no-brainer. The other time he testified, well, that was for money he needed for his family.
Hoodlum wasn’t well liked by D-13 members, though, so LV didn’t believe any of them would go out of their way to avenge him since he was Black. They had only allowed him in the gang because he had grown up in the neighborhood.
“We’ll be okay, Vee. The homies don’t give a shit about that nigga,” LV replied as he kicked at several crows that ventured too close to their table. “I hate these fucking crows. My abuela told me they were bad luck. I don’t want them anywhere near me.”
“Your abuela is full of shit. They just fucking birds. Ain’t nothing magical attached to them.”
LV shrugged and shoveled a forkful of food in his mouth, smiling as he chewed.
Vanessa smiled back. Tough guy, huh? Scared of fucking birds, she thought as she returned his gaze, inhaling him like a long, gratifying hit off a pookie. With his shaved head and absence of facial hair, which highlighted his sleek nose and prominent cheekbones, she thought he was gorgeous. He had an exoticness about him, a mixture between an Italian and an Indian on the warpath. And he was also full of shit right now. She could tell that he was worried. And not about no fucking crows, either. He was deflecting. Whatever his true worries, they didn’t matter, though. She had his back regardless.
THEY FINISHED EATING IN LESS THAN TEN MINUTES.
They got on their bikes and rode toward a three-story building on the corner of Wardlow Street and Santa Fe Avenue. It was the home of the Kohler Company, a business that produced generators. The two homeless encampments were north of the building: one on the south side of the 405 Freeway on-ramp and one on the north side. An access road east of the building led to four tunnels that went under the on-ramp. As they rode past several concrete poles put there to block vehicle traffic onto the road, a crow dive-bombed LV.
“Whoa! You see that shit, Vee?”
“Man up, coño!” Vanessa replied. “Those crows don’t give a shit about you. Stop being paranoid and hurry up.”
She picked up speed and pulled away. LV stood up in his seat and started pedaling faster as they rode into the quiet, middle-class neighborhood less than a half mile from where the two homeless encampments were. The next morning was trash pick-up day. They would be back in the wee hours, fighting off raccoons and opossums digging through the trash cans sitting in front of the houses. What the people who lived in the houses thought to be trash, the unhoused deemed to be necessities. But until then, LV and Vanessa were going to her favorite spot: the Halloween Fest: Dark Harbor show at the Queen Mary. Long believed to be a haven for ghosts, it was a great place for the event, the ubiquitous sea fog providing the perfect ambiance.
The bike path on the L.A. riverbed is a straight shot to downtown Long Beach and the Queen Mary. A steep, concrete, graffiti-marred riverbank extends from the path down to the riverbed, which ends at the Pacific Ocean and the Port of Long Beach. Bike rides are filled with the wonders of nature; Birds of prey fly overhead, ducks waddle below, storks high-step in the water, all under the watchful eyes of seagulls, fearless in testing the limits of their comfort zones.
Bird watchers and animal conservationists with expensive cameras set up on tripods barely noticed Vanessa, LV, or any of the other cyclists riding by. They were more concerned with catching sight of a rare species than anything else, including the plight of the unhoused living in a suburbia of shantytowns all around them.
Another crow flew past LV’s head. Was it the same one he had kicked at earlier? Or the one who divebombed him when they were leaving Fantastic Burgers? Or was it another one—one of the ones he threw rocks at whenever they came too close to their tent? Sammy, one of their neighbors in the homeless camp, had advised him on several occasions to leave them alone, that they had long memories and didn't forget disrespect. LV didn’t care about the warnings. All he cared about at that moment was something else that his abuela had told him.
Death comes with the crows, mijo.