Over the years, it has been routinely stated as fact by self-appointed experts there is no such thing as earthquake weather in Los Angeles. But real Angelinos know better from past personal experience and collective memory. This is especially so in East L.A. where such shaky foundation in professional thinking gives over to down-to-earth, centuries-old traditions and commonly believed old wives tales have been time-tested until they are essentially the same as true.
All one had to do was observe any snake trails in the dirt near the ravines that lined the tiny yards of the small terra cotta houses. They could then see their erratic behavior from that of the side-winders to that of a more frenetic slide to note something was askew.
Arturo noticed this frantic action as he studied the marine life in the back of his apartment. His mother did not like him spending so much time near the often fetid and stagnant green water. To him, it was more alive than the world around him. His Tia Lupe had first told him to watch the snakes if he wanted to know when the next earthquake would come.
She told him the snakes were receptive to the vibrations deep within the earth. This made sense to young Arturo. Snakes were belly-close to the ground and could sense things humans could not. He knew his mother did not like him near the ravine but the arroyo was the closest thing near their Pico Rivera neighborhood to a park.
The ravine was an always changing world to Arturo. During the wintry rainy season, the arroyo would sometimes flood and he would look out from the safety of his rain-flecked window as the water steadily rose, first as a small stream and then to a rushing torrent when the rainy seasons came.
During such storms, he had seen the water nearly crest to the top of the ravine wall and slap loudly against the cement sides as it rushed swiftly by in a frightening display of raw power. Once, he had seen a couch go by and not long after that, a screaming man being carried by the torrential surge.
But the ravine was quiet now and bone dry in these scorching summer months. He didn’t need a park, as he and his skateboarding buddies had a better place to practice their ollies, flips and no comply moves. Plus there were no police like in the supermarket parking lots or the business parks that closed at 5. The ravines were as much their own ecosystem as another world. He loved to hear his voice echo down the causeway traveling to parts unknown.
Every now and then they’d have to beware of a transient who stumbled drunkenly down the ravine or a few lost coyotes, misplaced by new construction in the foothills, but for the most part, this was their private fortress against civilization.
When water flowed regularly down the ravine, Arturo was amazed by the different souvenirs of life he could find; coins, broken sunglasses, a smashed cell phone, shoes without heels, a watch here, a tossed wallet there, panties, a school book, condoms and balloons. Sometimes if he and his friend were lucky, there was a faded dirty magazine that they would dry out on the banks in the sun to literally unfold life’s mysteries if the pages weren’t frustratingly stuck together or maybe even someone’s work badge but usually it was just garbage that would surge down the pike; with lots of plastic bags from every supermarket chain and bodega in town.
Then one day when a mannequin’s limbs flowed into the weeds and became trapped. The head came by too, but Charlie, Arturo’s best friend since he could remember, was too slow to catch it as it bobbed up and down in the river flow. Arturo and his friends swore they would never let Charlie live it down as this would have been his prized possession of all. As best they could tell, it went out to the wash and into the sea. It was a beauty and would have gone well with the rest they had caught as Halloween was right around the corner. They imagined themselves fishermen of a mighty, but dirty river and this catch would have made them neighborhood legends. For now they would have to do without.
The arms and the legs of the mannequin were sturdy and they observed the hands were bent in a bizarre manner, as if pointing to something. The ends of the limbs were burnt and the metallic rods at the ends were seared closed as if some great incineration had taken place. Arturo and his friends imagined there had been some sort of volcanic eruption up river, as in Pompeii they had recently learned about in Science, although they couldn’t explain the lack of lava flow. Surely, it would have come down the ravine or even made the news. It did neither.
“I didn’t see no body.” Arturo said as he was hauled in one day to be interrogated by the LA County Sheriffs. The same was said by his friends. They were oblivious, just kids.
The police asked a lot of questions, about their time at the ravine. The questions didn’t make any sense to Arturo and his friends. Their summer was all about exploration, trying not to be bored and avoiding homework as much as possible. They saw no one but people they knew.
Arturo and his friends never knew until much later that a serial killer had been in their midst, a transient, watching them, watching all of the kids who cut through the ravine on their way home from school. The would be killer had been waiting for the right moment, the right vibrations he said and then hoped Arturo and his friends would tamper with the evidence as kids do with items that don’t belong to them. They never knew that a high school girl had gone missing, had her throat slit and was then ritualistically cut into pieces, her limbs burned. To them it had been a summer of innocence.
Arturo still thought about it that way when he looked back on it. The only thing he recalled was the powerful earthquake that happened shortly thereafter and how it had frightened many people, his family included. The murder was a footnote, a cursory mention on the front page. No one was really alarmed by the murder, as killings happened all of the time in the hood, because murder was a way of life. Everybody knew someone who had been murdered. People accepted it as they accepted the earthquakes. One could no more move away from crime as one could from the trembling earth. All were tethered by it and he who avoided death, lived in their tenuous existence. He remembered later on reading in a newspaper account how the victim’s family had been tragically killed in the quake, first trapped in the rubble and then burned alive by a faulty gas line that slowly set the apartment complex ablaze. The overstretched fire companies were busy fighting other, bigger fires, such as the Long Beach docks. Given the statistics he thought the girl’s death was inevitable.
As a Pushcart Prize nominee, Joe’s short stories have been published in over 260 literary reviews such as Byline, New Authors Journal, Cavalcade of Stars, Underground Voices, Midwest Literary Magazine, Inwood Indiana Literary Review, Hack Writers, Six Sentences, Literary Mary, NexGenPulp, Is This Reality Zine , Darkest Before Dawn, strangeroad.com, FarAway Journal, Full of Crow, Heroin Love Songs, Bewildering Stories, Writing Raw, Unheard Magazine, Absent Willow Literary Review. I also have two boxing novels published by Fight Card Productions. A collection of my short stories is being published in Europe this year.