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The Night of the Pigeons
By Art Brambila

"Tenerlo! Che va lá?" the old man yelled stumbling down the back stairs from his screen porch. "Who goes there, bastardo di puttana!" Mr. Pelligrini had heard the chaos and the flutter of his pigeons, and he'd come running from his house to check on his prized collection. I can still recall the cold, dark night and stench of the birds' droppings around the swampy muck of Mr. Pelligrini's back yard. And I can still see the mountain of garbage that was stacked near a low picket fence across the muddy yard as my childhood friend Candilario and I hid, trembling behind the pigeon coop.

The old man was insane in his anger and he was holding a loaded .45 in his hand.

The birds had stifled by the time the skinny old man, barefoot and in gray boxer shorts, reached the coop. Candilario and I stayed huddled in the mud, trembling in fright, against the 10-foot chain-link fence we'd just scaled to get to the old man's birds. It was a dark, wet November, and a weeklong rain in Los Angeles had just temporarily ceased.

I was 12 and Candilario was 13. We'd just come out of a movie theater over on North Figueroa and we'd walked across the white bridge that spanned the L.A. River over the Pasadena Freeway. Black clouds had hung heavily above us as a hard rain slapped huge drops of water against our faces. We stopped for a moment in the middle of the bridge and we thought we'd pee from it on the cars passing below us, but hey, on rainy days in Los Angeles, nobody rides in convertibles, so we didn't.

By the time we reached the warehouses and factories that were nestled amongst a web of railroad tracks just across the bridge, the rain had turned to a sprinkle, and when the sun broke through, a light silvery mist engulfed us as we stood alone in the industrial fields of a community called Lincoln Heights. When the empty clouds moved behind us, Candilario turned to me and said, "Hey, Juanito, I know how we can make some money."

Candilario had a plan. He always had a plan.

Little Candilario Barrera was a small and enterprising kid, always scheming ways to make a buck. He was older than I, and more streetwise, so I listened. His plan seemed so easy and so safe, so I went for it.

But we needed the dark of the night for his plan so we picked up an old tin can from a metal dumpster near the Purina Dog Chow Company and we killed some time playing one-on-one soccer with it beside the rail yards. When the sun lowered beyond the western skies, we splashed our tennies in the puddles that formed in the potholes and waited a little more. And as the light began to fade behind the skyline of downtown Los Angeles, Candilario and I climbed atop an old freight car and stood on its catwalk. We turned our eyes to a blue and purple sky covering the city, to see a dark gray wall of buildings behind the radiant tower of the Los Angeles City Hall, the tallest building in L.A. City Hall lorded dead center among the smaller buildings that rested at its knees. Its silver spire rose high, almost obscenely, like an enormous middle finger of a giant oppressor, mockingly flipping the bird toward the eastside. Candilario and I sat there smiling and sharing a Camel. It was a hell of a sight, we thought, and a daily reminder of a great City Hall, in a great American city, but so oblivious to our lives, so distant from our dreams, and so far, far away from our world.

"Che va lá!" the old Italian man shouted again, "Come outta there, Bastardo, Mudder Fucker!" Hunched and turning on half-bended knees, the old man scanned the yard with blue beady-eyes and sniffed at the cold air like a wild beast stalking prey. An eerie glow from a sharp tiny silver moon shone like a laser behind his thin orange hair, casting a light-yellow halo around his balding head as he menacingly held the gun.

Candilario was a small kid for his age. He'd come from a small village somewhere in Mexico and he was just getting a grasp on his English. The dark-haired, dark-eyed Mexican was as tough as those Mayas in his home country he spoke so much about. But it meant nothing that night, because I know this: Maya, Chicano, Fulano or Bonano, that night we were just two kids, terrified, laying in the muck of the old man's back yard. And it wasn't just because we got caught stealing his pigeons, or because he had a gun, but because Mr. Pelligrini was the last of the old Italian dons who once controlled East L.A., and many years before, he had been double-crossed by the New York mob, and he and his East L.A. gang were duped out of some business in Las Vegas. And everybody knew that Mr. Pelligrini, that son-of-a-bitch, was still pissed off about it. And all the while, my best friend Candilario and I shuddered in the dark.

"Ripertere, I weel keel you," he yelled at the demons in his mind, as Candilario and I prayed behind the coop. We glared at the gun, shaking. And when the old man turned, Candilario looked up at me, put a "shush" finger to his lips and pointed quietly across the yard to the picket fence. If we could jump over it and run down the alley that led to the Barbara Ann Bakery we could make it to Figueroa, pass by the Times' Boys' Club and down Daly Street. We'd pass North Broadway and on to North Main… Home.

So Candilario balled his fist and put it at my face. He sprang a finger. Then, two...then...three!

"Run, run!"

Candilario was half way across the yard before I could even pluck my tennies from the mud. Mr. Pelligrini fired his weapon. Boo-oo-mm! Terrified, I buried my face deep in the goo. When I looked up, my friend was already in the old man's clutches, kicking and twisting and screaming. The big .45 steamed in the cold air, but the bullet had hit the topside of a box car and little Candilario was fighting desperately to get away from the old man's grip.

"Bastardo, filio di puttana," Mr. Pelligrini howled as Candilario struggled against his grip. I could see my homeboy was scared, but that little Maya tried to kick at the old man. The shrewd Italian was too smart and too strong. "Whacha wan' a here?" the old man yelled angrily while the kid struggled and spun like a top. Suddenly the old man slapped him hard across the head and Candilario came to a dead halt. "Che cosa é una nome? (What's your name, boy?)"

Candilario protested loudly, "Deja me ir, let me go!"

The old Italian spun the kid around and wrapped a huge forearm around his throat. He put the gun to his ribs. "No a make a me keel ya," he warned, and with that he picked up the boy and flung him over his naked back and onto his bare shoulders. He carried Candilario across the muddy yard, under a wire clothesline and past the hump of stinking garbage. Candilario kicked and screamed as the old man carried him through the puddles and down into two slanted cellar doors at the back of the house.

I jumped up from the muck and ran along the broadside of the house toward the front gate with every intention of bringing help for Candilario. But who would I call? The cops? Everybody in the eastside knew LAPD took their sweet time when called, if they came at all. The neighbors? There was no one in that area that I knew, and most would slam their doors on a Mexican kid. I panicked. Candilario needed help now, there was no time to lose. I needed to see what was happening so I turned back. I picked up a rusted nail from the muddy ground and I punched a peephole on the cardboard shield that blocked the crawl space of the cellar.

And through it, I saw it all.

The cellar was no more than a hole dug six-feet deep into the dirt of the crawl space under the house. It was only wide enough for a small sofa, an old metal milk crate and a few shelves where he stored bottles of wine and various sizes of canned foods. The air vents around the house's foundation were sealed with cardboard for privacy. The cardboard trapped the moisture under the house causing the dirt on the ground to harden like clay. There was a dim naked 40-watt bulb at the center of the tiny room with a thick cord leading through a hole in the floor of the house and plugged to an outlet in the old man's kitchen.

Mr. Pelligrini stood the crate on its end. "Sit down," he demanded, "what's yer name, kid?" The frightened boy sat on the crate and faced the menacing man who had plopped himself cross-legged on the sofa with the .45 resting on the armrest, aimed at the boys head.

"Candilario," my friend answered meekly.

"Why you fuckin' wit mi familia, Candilario?"

"What?" the kid snapped, puzzled, "I don't even know your familia!"

"Non comportas coglione! (Don't act stupid), ya' little greaseball; mi brothers, mi sisters, mi family!"

"You mean los pigeones?" Candilario said almost laughing and pointing toward the doors, "you loco, man, they're not your familia, they just pajaritos."

The old man narrowed his wiry orange brows and aimed his .45 right at the kid's mud-caked face. "Why were you messin' wit 'em, I say?"

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