Night of the Pigeons
By Art Brambila
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
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
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.
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.
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
So Candilario balled his fist and put it at my face. He sprang a finger.
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,
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.
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
"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?"
now realized the crazy old man was serious. His eyes widened with fear;
there was dread in his voice, "I wasn't messin' wit 'em, Meester,
I swear it. I was jest gonna take a few pigeones, borrow 'em, you know,
for da little old ladies over on Sichel Street."
The old man jumped off his seat, "What! Mi familia? For somebody's
"My mama, she need de money, Señor. Please, I was gonna
pay you, cross my heart!"
The old man sat down again and glared suspiciously at the frightened boy.
When the old man said no more, Candilario sprang for the doors. But the
lanky old Italian jumped and caught him near the storage shelves. He spun
the boy around and punched him hard in the stomach. The boy folded over
gasping and the old man licked his chops and snickered threateningly.
"Git up you little boy and do all that I say or I'll beat the living
hell out of you!"
The boy lifted himself from the hard ground struggling to catch his breath
and begged, "Please, Meester, can I go home now?"
"No, you cain't go home now," the old man mocked.
"Why? I didn't do nothin'."
The old man stared straight at the boy and he wiped his mouth with the
back of his hand. "I say you messed wit mi familia! Now you cain't
go nowhere's 'til you do what I tell ya!"
The young boy was trembling. "What then?"
"Take off yer pants."
"Ya' don't want to?" the slimy old man said wetting his lips.
"You fuckin' egg I don't wanna; are you fucking loco, man?"
"Don't do it and I put a bullet through your fucking head, cullatina,
and bury your ass right here in my cellar!"
Candilario's mouth dropped open, he was trying to speak, but the words
didn't come out.
"What's da' matter, Bambino, Big Papa scare you?"
"Please, Meester," the boy mumbled, now crying, "Why can't
I go home? My mama is waiting. She worry. I won't do nothin' no more.
It's a promise," he begged, crossing his heart.
"Your mama know you're here?"
"No, but please, let me go home to her now."
"Who knows you here?'
That questioned drained the blood from my body. I pulled back from the
peephole and wiped my brow. Had the old man seen me? Did he suspect he
was being watched? I swallowed hard and needed to pee.
But Candilario was a street kid. He'd never tell, even if he knew I was
there, which he didn't. And he wouldn't say I had been with him behind
the pigeon coop or that I might know he was in danger. You learn those
"No...no...nobody knows I'm here, Meester -- honest," he answered
with tears running down his face. Weak with fear he softly laced his hands
religiously and began to recite The Lord's Prayer -- in his native tongue,
"Padre nuestro que estas en los cielos..."
"Stop that!" the old man demanded. "Ya' ain never goin'
home alive if ya' don't do what I want. Capisci!"
The young boy seemed resigned. He performed the sign of the cross and
looked to the heavens. He asked his Lord to forgive him. He lowered his
eyes and took a quick but darting look around the dark cellar. Then he
closed his eyes softly and left them that way. He undid the belt of his
pants slowly. His khaki pants dropped over his muddied Keds.
The old man took one step back. "Porco zio! (by gosh), he
cried out with a sick and evil smirk in his ruddy face, "you're beautiful."
The young boy's tears rolled down his cheeks.
Transfixed only on the boy's crotch, the old man demanded, "Da' shorts,
Just then the long air whistle of a rumbling train began to shake the
house. The bottles clinked and the light bulb swayed. But Mr. Pelligrini,
his eyes still narrowed and focused, was oblivious to it all.
"I said take down da' shorts, too," the old man warned, still
holding the gun.
next robbed me forever of my innocence. And it robbed me of my best friend.
For through the peep hole of the cardboard, by the dim light of a 40-watt
bulb, while sitting on the wet, cold ground, I saw it all.
The old, half naked man dropped to his knees crawling clumsily toward
the boy, eyes still riveted. As he was about to reach my friend, the freight
train roared and the house shuddered and howled, but the old man never
knew it. He never knew it because Candilario, growing up quick in the
mean streets of East L.A., opened his eyes slowly and saw his opportunity.
He cautiously backed himself against the shelves, and slowly reached back
and picked up a bottle of wine and, quick as lightening, shattered it
over the old man's head.
The old Italian don, bloodied and dazed, fell back on his ass, but he
started to get up again, groaning. He pointed the gun to Candilario's
heart. "Bastardo, che va in culo a sua madre (bastard, motherfucker),"
he screamed, "Li uccideró, li uccideró!"
(I'll kill you, I'll kill you!).
And that was it.
There I watched the old man die.
I saw it all while I was crouched in the mud and drenched in the rain.
And it burned deeply in my soul and etched itself into every fiber of
my mind. Candilario Barrera, the tough little Maya, didn't give him a
chance to shoot. He took a gallon-weight can of stewed tomatoes, angled
it, and with the edge of it he cracked the old man's skull! The old man
went down again, barely conscious.
Candilario Barrera, a 13-year-old kid from a tiny village in southern
Mexico, whose ancestors had survived centuries of hardship there, now
found himself living to survive in the killing streets of Los Angeles.
He quickly wrenched the gun from the old Italian capo's hand. He parted
the semi-conscious man's teeth with the barrel of it. He pushed it in,
and toggled and twisted and pushed it in a little further, and then further
into the old man's mouth. Then the hairs behind my neck lifted eerily
as I saw something I almost could not believe: the old man's eye lashes
fluttered slightly open and blinked softly. He had a slight smile on his
face. His lips enveloped around the barrel of the gun almost erotically.
He sucked on it lightly, peaceful and serene. He looked up at Candilario,
seemingly content, as if to beg. To beg, but not for his life, but unbelievably,
as if to beg for the bullet . . . intimately inviting Candilario to pull
And to do it lovingly.
Candilario's eyes, black as coal, and cold as ice, darted fiercely around
the dim little room. Then little Candilario, not a bit concerned with
the old man's apparent gestures of pleasure, coolly squeezed, and then
. . . pulled the trigger!
The whistle of the train, whoo-o-o-, whoo-o-o-o, drowned out the blast
of the gun and Mr. Pelligrini's head exploded like a grenade with shrapnel
of bone from his skull embedding in the cardboard shields of the crawl
windows right in front of my eyes. Bits of his brain and flesh splattered
and pasted on the ceiling like spitballs in a high school lab class. The
last of the old Italian mobsters in Los Angeles was dead. And I was just
beginning to live.
life has its script, then mine turned a heavy page on that night of the
pigeons. Although Candilario Barrera and I had been best friends in our
youth, I never saw him after that night and I really never cared to. Candilario's
family moved to South Gate and I stayed where I was. He never knew what
I'd seen in the cellar of Mr. Pelligrini's house because we never talked
about it. But the old man's sexual approach, and his murder, made Candilario
callous, mean and angry. I heard over the years of the dark side of Candilario's
life and his involvement with the Eastside gangs, but I was too busy with
my own street challenges to pay too much attention to his. He climbed
the ranks in the drug wars and he wound up going in and out of prisons,
building up an army of cutthroats and thugs while dealing in cocaine,
heroin and women, and creating a legend of himself in the annals of crime
in Los Angeles.
The years passed and what I saw as a kid in Mr. Pelligrini's cellar brought
to me a new appreciation for life. I took a different path from that of
my old friend Candilario. I learned to cover my pains and overcame my
poverty with hard work and a new hope for my future. I lightened up in
school taking courses in history and social sciences while I took a part-time
job running numbers for a bookie over on North Broadway. I paid my way
through college and vowed that I wouldn't die in the streets of a barrio
as I made plans for all of my tomorrows.
After college I worked for an old family friend as a junior bail bondsman,
and then I spent some time as a bounty hunter. I bought a small print
shop in East L.A. while I hired out as a part-time private investigator.
I dealt with lots of gangsters and lowlifes in my time but I never thought
I'd have to deal with the likes of Candilario Barrera again, and that
would have been all right with me.
And then one day . . .
for more of Art's story on upcoming FRESH YARN installments.)
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