Also read about the author: "Something Wicked," a profile of Richard Lange by Joe Donnelly.
Oscar awoke from a dream of heaven. Opening his eyes, he saw swollen clouds massed in a dark sky and realized that he was back on earth. No more glittering mansions, no more streets of gold.
He sat up on the bench in MacArthur Park, and the pain that roared through him drove tears into his eyes. His arms, his legs — there was no part of his body that didn’t hurt. He was full of liquid fire that burned him from the inside out.
He lifted his shirt. The makeshift bandage he’d fashioned out of a blue cotton dress he’d found in a Dumpster had slipped out of place, exposing the worst of the bites on his stomach. The edges of the wound were black, and it oozed bloody pus. Afraid to look too closely, Oscar grimaced and slid the bandage back into position.
Struggling to his feet, he hobbled along the concrete path that led to the lake on the other side of the park, careful not to stumble, lest he attract the attention of the security guards who patrolled the area. He was feverish, dizzy. The shouts of a group of boys playing soccer were like nails pounded into his throbbing head as he hurried into the dank, piss-smelling tunnel that passed under Wilshire Boulevard.
When he was midway through the passage, he turned to look over his shoulder, and there is was, the devil that had been following him all day, silhouetted against the square of light at the entrance to the tunnel. Oscar could make out the horns, the tail, the cloven hooves. He’d always known that the time would come when he’d have to pay for his sins, and he was ready, he would go without a fight, but not until he’d said goodbye to Maribel and the baby. Carlos would give him money to go to them. He had to find Carlos.
He came up out of the tunnel and walked next to the lake. A cold wind ruffled the surface of the black water, and an empty paper cup floating there spun round and round like something wounded. Oscar had seen fishermen pull tennis shoes from the murk, a sleeping bag, a rusty sword, and there were rumors of corpses resting on the bottom.
Near the boathouse a fat white duck quacked furiously as Oscar passed by.
“Farewell, my friend,” Oscar said. He’d been talking to birds since he was a child in Guatemala. The other boys had called him St. Francis. Spray from the fountain in the middle of the lake, a flickering plume of water 20 feet high, was like a cool hand on his cheek. He watched the tall palm trees that bordered the park hiss and strike like angry snakes.
At the frantic corner of Wilshire and Alvarado an old man preached the love of Jesus through a cheap megaphone that wreathed his words in static. “Jesus is love! Jesus is power! Jesus is life!” Juanito was there, too, hawking counterfeit i.d. cards. He sat on a fire hydrant and whispered offers at passersby, his eyes constantly moving, alert for police or gangsters who might try to shake him down. Oscar asked if he’d seen Carlos.
“You look like shit,” Juanito said.
“Callate, pendejo. Just tell me where he is.”
“Home Depot, with Francisco. Some white son of a bitch said he’d use them on a painting job today.”
Oscar coughed. The pain buckled his knees, and purple spiders skittered across his eyeballs.
“Come to Jesus!” the old man with the megaphone yelled.
“Yes, come to Jesus,” Oscar said to the devil.
Juanito hissed and shook his head. “You keep talking to yourself, and they’re gonna lock you up.”
Oscar crossed Alvarado and headed east on Wilshire. The delicious smell drifting out of a pupuseria stopped him in his tracks. He hadn’t eaten in two days, couldn’t keep anything down. When he opened the door, the dark-skinned fat woman behind the counter turned away from the portable television she was watching and looked at him. It was a tiny restaurant: two tables with plastic floral-print tablecloths, the specials handwritten on sheets of colored paper tacked to the walls.
“Por favor,” Oscar said. “Can you give a sick man something to eat?”
“Get out of here, you filthy drunk,” the woman shouted.
“This is a respectable place.”
“Por favor, señora.”
The woman picked up the knife she’d been using to chop carrots and pointed it at Oscar.
“Out with you. Now!”
“Fuck you then, you old witch,” Oscar said. He spit on the floor before hurrying outside.
A block later he stopped and leaned against the side of a building. He was wracked by chills that rattled his teeth. God give me strength, he prayed. The devil trotted up the sidewalk toward him. It had a pointy black beard and carried a flaming sword. Oscar saw it best out of the corner of his eye. If he looked at the demon directly, it turned into an old man or a schoolgirl or a mailbox.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Oscar shouted at the devil. “I’m ready to die.” But who, he wondered, would take care of his animals when he was gone?
Carlos, Francisco and a few others were sitting on a low cinderblock wall next to the driveway at Home Depot. As Oscar approached, a pickup pulled out of the parking lot, and the men swarmed it, shouting, “Take me,” “I speaking English,” “How many?” The driver shook his head and left without hiring anyone.
“The fat queer.”
“Seriously. He wanted someone to fuck him in the ass.”
“Give me a hundred bucks, and I’ll do it,” Carlos said. He saw Oscar and shouted, “Look out! A zombie!”
Oscar stumbled over to the group and sank to the cold sidewalk, rested his back against the wall. Sweat rolled down his face and neck; his T-shirt was soaked with it.
“Man, I’ve got to tell you, you stink,” Francisco said. “Last night it was so bad, it was like sleeping next to a dead pig.”
Carlos punched him in the arm and said, “Be merciful. The boy’s sick.”
“Sure, fine, so change beds with me.”
Waving Francisco quiet, Carlos crouched next to Oscar and asked him, “How is it today?”
Oscar shook his head, too exhausted to speak. He couldn’t even open his eyes. A police car raced past, lights flashing, sirens blaring, and to Oscar it sounded like the end of the world.
“Have you eaten?” Carlos asked.
Again, Oscar shook his head. Carlos moved closer to him, grabbed one of his arms and draped it around his neck. “Francisco,” he said, “let’s carry him to McDonald’s.”
“What about the painting?”
“A storm is coming. That cabron isn’t going to show up. Get over here.”
They helped Oscar walk across the parking lot to the restaurant and sat him in one of the plastic booths. Francisco left to meet a girl in the park, and Carlos joined the long line of customers waiting to order at the counter. Oscar watched the children in the restaurant’s playground. One little boy had such a serious look on his face as he climbed and crawled and slid that Oscar almost laughed. He thought of his son, looked forward to holding him once more.
Carlos brought Oscar a cheeseburger and an orange soda. Oscar managed to choke down half of the sandwich before the nausea set in. His hand shook as he reached for the soda, and Carlos grabbed it and examined the bites there.
“These are infected,” he said. “My father lost a foot that way. You’ve got to go to the clinic.”
“They know that I’m hurt. They may be watching it.”
“We’ll sneak in the back, then. We’ll put you in a disguise.”
Oscar pulled his hand away and shook his head. “It’s not important,” he said. “The devil has come for me today, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“You’re delirious,” Carlos said. “You’re blood is full of poison. Please let me take you to see the doctor.”
Oscar smiled, though it hurt his cracked lips to do so.
“You’ve always been a good friend, Carlos,” he said. “Remember in Zunil, when we stole that burro from the trash man, and it kicked you in the ass? I tell you, I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.”
“You were supposed to have control over all the animals, St. Francis. What happened?”
Oscar watched an old man in a McDonald’s uniform mop up a drink that had been spilled on the floor. Was this the better life the man had dreamed of?
“We should never have come here,” he said.
“But we did,” Carlos replied, “and now here we are.”
Oscar pushed away the tray with the rest of the burger on it and sat up a little straighter. “Listen,” he said, “I want to go see Maribel and Alex. Could you give me some money for the bus?”
“If you promise to go to the clinic when you return,” Carlos said.
Oscar placed his hand over his heart. “I promise,” he said.
Carlos passed him two dollar bills.
Oscar sipped from his drink, then said, “And will you feed my dog tonight?”
Oscar felt stronger when they emerged into the fresh air, which was now heavy with the threat of rain. He was still sore, but his head was clearer, and he could walk without stumbling. He and Carlos banged fists when they parted in front of Home Depot, and Oscar blinked back tears because he knew it was the last time they would see each other.
On his way back to Alvarado to catch a bus going south he passed a botanica and decided to stop in. A bell rang when he entered. It was a small, dusty shop, cluttered with votive candles and incense and icons. A statue of Saint Simón, in a broad-brimmed hat, black suit, and red tie, sat on the counter between the Virgin of Guadalupe and a hooded Santa Muerte.
Oscar’s mother had often visited Simón’s shrine in Zunil to ask for things like luck in the lottery or a new kitchen table. Oscar always thought it was a bit silly, a comfort for superstitious housewives and old men. The church didn’t even recognize Simón after all. Today, though, he was happy to see something that reminded him of home. Others had left offerings of tequila and cigars, but Oscar had nothing to give. Nonetheless, he bowed his head and mumbled a quick prayer.
“Oh powerful Saint Simón, please help me and protect me from any dangers. Oh Judas Simón, I call you brother in my heart because you are everywhere and you are always with me.”
The owner of the shop parted a curtain of beads and stepped through it, a tall, skinny man in a long robe and feathered headdress.
“Can I help you, my son?” he asked.
“I was just speaking to Saint Simón.”
“You seem troubled. Would you like to come in back for a cleansing? Only $20, and you will feel much better.”
“I have no money, sir.”
“I am a poor man.”
“I see, but you must understand that you can’t get something without giving something. Especially from Saint Simón.”
“You smile when you say that?” Oscar snapped. “You should be ashamed to be living in this world.”
The owner scowled and pointed. “Your nose,” he said.
Oscar raised his hand, and his fingers came away covered with blood.
It was raining when he walked out. He squeezed his nostrils shut with the napkin the store owner had given him and tilted his head to let the fat drops cool his face. The pain inside him had returned more intense than ever, but he kept moving, afraid that if he stopped, he wouldn’t get started again.
Los Angeles was not its haughty self in the rain. It was like a wet cat: humiliated, confused. People stepped gingerly on suddenly slippery sidewalks, looking like they’d been lied to. The gutters, clogged with garbage, overflowed, and the water puddled in busy intersections.
Oscar waited for the bus with a mumbling loco and a couple of old ladies who shared an umbrella. The rain came down harder, the drops slamming into the pavement like suicides. Oscar zipped up his jacket and pulled the hood over his head.
The bus arrived, a great hissing, snorting beast throwing up silver sheets of spray. Oscar climbed aboard and pushed his way to the back. It was too hot, there were too many people. He winced every time he brushed against someone, and his whole body was slick with rancid sweat. A few stops later a seat opened up, and he fell into it.
Raindrops chased one another across the window. Though it was only noon, it had grown so dark outside, all the cars had their lights on. Oscar was having trouble breathing. It felt like someone was standing on his chest. For the first time he was frightened.
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He couldn’t remember where he was. When he closed his eyes he saw heaven, when he opened them, the rain. The bus stopped, and the devil came through the doors. It walked down the aisle toward Oscar. It raised its sword. Oscar thought of Maribel and Alex, heaven and the rain.
“The Lord is with me,” he shouted.
The devil swung its sword, and lighting flashed, turning everyone into ghosts. Oscar’s eyes rolled back. He fell into a black pit, down and down and — oh, God, the thunder in his head.
Excerpted from THIS WICKED WORLD | By RICHARD LANGE | © 2009 by Richard Lange, all rights reserved. | Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company | Publication date June 30 | 416 pages | $23.99 hardcover