by Rafael Castillo
This is a true story. I’ve carried it like a large gash across my forehead. I read that Commaches often scarred the faces of their kinsmen who displayed cowardice in battle. Sometimes I feel complicit because I could have stopped it—but I didn’t.
His name was Lucas Cruz but everybody called him Tonina Jackson. The real Tonina Jackson was a rotund wrestler who made his debut appearance in All-Star Wrestling. The show was telecast live from a Josephine Street. And just like Tonina Jackson, Lucas was big. An obese-looking guy barely five-five.
Lucas wanted to blend into the group like the rest of us who went to Cooper Junior High in the late ‘70s. Cooper was a West-Side feeder school to either Fox Tech or Sidney Lanier, two segregated, vocational-technical high schools that relegated us to a lifetime of blue-collar jobs. It wasn’t that bad because I had no idea what I wanted to be when I finished high-school anyway.
Big Lucas Tonina hung around the heavies—the guys who controlled what happened in the playground—the pachucos who fought
one another for territory, and the right to assert dominion over the less powerful. Back then, “pachucos” were like the Jets in “West Side Story.” Cliqueish guys who felt toughness was a ticket to success.
The Lucas tragedy happened during the winter of ‘75 when rainy days and freezing temperatures restricted our outside physical activity. Back then, P.E. (Physical Education) was mandatory for all junior-high students. We played basketball, competed in track relays; the girls played volleyball or softball. It was just a way to let off steam, they use to say.
It was Wednesday. The rain spoiled all activity outside. When we got to gym class, Coach Covington directed us to the retractable bleachers. We noticed the girls had set up a corner area with a portable phonograph, while Mr. Huerta, the Vice-Principal, set up a microphone with large speakers. The wooden floors were shiny and clean.
“Gentlemen,” Coach Covington uttered, “today we have a special treat. You’re going to dance with the ladies. And you will participate.” The last phrase was uttered with irony. He knew we didn’t want to participate because we’d have to take off our shoes so as not to scuff the floors. Many of us had torn socks or holes in our soles.
I dreaded it because I didn’t know how to dance. The last time I danced with this girl named Marta, she got all over my case for stepping on her shoes (“Just follow,” she blurted. “I’ll lead.”). I made my way up the creaky bleachers with Martin Gonzalez, Felipe Munoz, Cowboy Flores (the guy always wore a cowboy hat) and Manfred (nicknamed after the cartoon character Tom Terrific).
Big Lucas was the last one to join us who came huffing and puffing because his heaviness was a burden. Martin and Felipe huddled together, whispering. I knew they were up to no-good. Within earshot, I heard Manfred and Cowboy giggle. I hung out with them because I was a stringer (a wannabe) and because they were in my homeroom advisory. Martin turned to Tonina and said, “You know, Janie wants you to ask her out to dance.” I could tell he was lying because sarcasm was etched all over his face. But it was the way he said it with a nasty grin curving down the corners of his mouth—like a pitbut with dark eyes.
“What?” Tonina winced. I could see Tonina was astonished. He cupped his ear straining to listen because the girls started playing, an oldie-but-goodie: “Stop in the Name of Love” by the Supremes.
He shouted, “I said Janie wants you to ask her out!”
I grimaced. I knew it was a lie. To reassure Tonina, Martin even pointed to Janie and waved; she waved back from the vast distance of the gym floor. She was sitting next to other girls and gossipy types. And Janey probably thought Martin was drawing her attention on account that she had sent him a few love notes.
Janie was in our advisory and sat behind Tonina, who always made small talk with her because her parents owned the grocery store where Tonina’s parents bought food items on credit. She was a pretty brunette with hazel eyes and swung her hips in a slutty swing. She waved at Martin again.
“You see, what did I say,” Martin said. I knew it was all patently false and I wanted to rat on Martin and the guys. But I just couldn’t. I was hoping Lucas would come to his senses.
“You’re crazy, Martin. She’s just my friend,” Tonina blurted. But Martin was persistent. He wasn’t about to let go of a good laugh.
“No—really, really. She told me so,” Martin insisted. Felipe turned around to the guys and nodded in the affirmative. Cowboy and Manfred chimed in, “Yeah, I think she does like you.”
Tonina raised his eyebrow and thought about it, wondering if there was a shred of truth. He noticed Janie always came out to
help her parents when Tonina and his parents showed up to get groceries.
“All right gentleman. Let’s get this show on the road!” Coach Covington said. The music was loud and he wanted to impress Mr. Huerta, the Vice-Principal.
Right then, Big Lucas Tonina stood up while the guys cheered and clapped. Covington turned around and focused his beady eyes on Martin and Felipe, who were giving each other high-fives. The boys were cheering, “T-O-N-I-N-A!” Loud clapping, foot stomping and the whole P.E. class egging him on. After a few ugly glances from Covington, the foot-stomping and cheering stopped.
Tonina waddled his way down the bleachers. One could hear his heavy breathing and the creaking planks as he lumbered down. His foot pressure lifted some of the boys like bowling pins. I could see his dirty socks. The guys in the front pinched their noses.
Just then, the song “Just Once in my Life,” by the Righteous Brothers, began playing and the girls let out a collective sigh. Lucas interpreted it as a positive sign.
This was not going to turn out good. I felt it in my bones. Lucas waddled across the shiny floor in pants so tight lards of belly fat wiggled every step of the way. A large shadow loomed right behind him. I saw Coach Covington and Mr. Huerta huddled, whispering and looking up at us. I wanted to put a stop to it. I
wanted to shout “Come back Lucas. Don’t waste your time!” Instead I covered my face with my hands.
Across the bleachers, the girls were quiet, all bugged-eyed and staring in disbelief. Many whispering among themselves like huddled hens about to lay eggs. It was not looking good for poor Tonina. I stared at Martin who was unperturbed by it all. His wicked grin relishing the intended climax.
Tonina came to a sudden halt. He stared straight at Janey who was staring back, smiling nervously. He then pointed his chubby finger at her and she looked aghast. Time came to a screeching stop. The music from the Righteous Brothers crawled to a slow pitch making an eerie, backward groan. The girls turned to Janey as if saying, come on, get out there and support the team. Either way, her choice would ruin one life forever. She shook her head, probably saying, “I’m sorry, I just can’t. I’m sorry Tonina.” She might as well had used a megaphone for all to hear. The gym let out a collective groan, more like a sigh. She looked more embarassed saying no because deep down she knew she was wrong.
Tonina looked dumbfounded. He turned red, his mouth agape. He knew the jig was up. He had been played like a pin-ball machine. And then he made another fatal mistake by pointing to a girl beside her and then another one, all of them shaking their heads, none suppressing their embarrassment.
All the while the guys in the bleachers were laughing raucously until Coach Brown flipped out his board of education—a discipline paddle. The laughing stopped. A menacing silence shrouded the place because they knew the painful consequences of the wooden paddle. Poor Tonina was returning, clearly devastated, tears streaming down his chubby cheeks, his head bowed in defeat.
I felt his embarassment, his pain of rejection.
But the show was just beginning.
Coach Covington came out and pointed to the top row and fingered five of us: Martin, Felipe, Cowboy, Manfred and me. I was taken aback. Surely, he was jesting. I pointed my forefinger inwardly, looking confused.
What you want me? I motioned
“You, too, Gumby.”
Oh my God, he’d given me a nickname just because he caught me smacking gum. Chewing gum was forbidden because the janitors complained that extracting gum from the gym floors was an unnecessary nuisance.
We made our way down to the floor, and the crowd was quiet. The music had stopped. Coach Vanessa, the blond-haired temptress from Odessa, was talking with the girls. She was probably scolding them.
Coach Brown pointed to the showers. We were escorted to where V.P. Huerta was waiting to catch the ruffians. He loved using that phrase, “ruffians.”
“Ok, ruffians, whose bright idea was it to send Tonina out?”
Even Huerta called Lucas, Tonina.
We shrugged our shoulders.
“I guess the Board of Education will loosen your tongues.”
Coach Brown took out a wooden paddle with hundreds of burrowed holes. He loved to say it lessened the centrifugal force when you swung it—like we all knew what the hell centrifugal force meant. He flexed it like a bat.
“Ruffians lower your pants down to your knees!”
We loosened our belts and lowered our trousers. No one was saying anything.
“Everyone gets one lick.” Coach Brown added. “Except Gumby. You get three.”
This was outrageous.
“We’re warned you about chewing gum,” Brown said. “Over and over. G-U-M, three letters equals to three licks!”
Huerta said nothing. That was the rule.
Tonina came in with Coach Covington, who asked him to identify who had directed him to go out to dance. He stared at Martin and
then the others and said nothing. He was not about to rat them out.
“Don’t worry. These ruffians will get their rewards!”
I raised my hand to say a few words. I had a forged letter hidden in my wallet reserved for these occasions and protested the demeaning, inhumane treatment.
“Sir. I have a signed letter from my Grandma saying she’s against corporeal punishment. You need her permission to—“
He grabbed the note before I could finish my sentence.
“This is two years old. It’s worthless!” He crumpled it into a ball and tossed it aside.
We bent down and touched our toes. Huerta swung the board giving each of one lick, including me.
“I’ll let it pass this time,” Huerta whispered. “You owe me.” He turned around and left in a huff.
Coach Brown scowled because Huerta amended anything he’d recommended, even rescinding the three licks rule for chewing gum.
My butt felt the burning sensation of a thousand wasp stings. Martin turned red, and Cowboy and Manfred were sobbing. Felipe was stoic, emotionless. I wasn’t about to give pleasure to that sadistic Coach Brown. I raised my pants and retrieved my crumpled note. We were led out back to the gym. The dance was in full force and we climbed onto our regular section, atop the bleachers.
Tonina stayed behind.
At homeroom advisory, I had that burning, aching feeling. I couldn’t sit down because of the aftershocks. The others endured as they could while Cowboy and Manfred went to their advisories.
After school, I stopped for a snow-cone on Tampico Street. The talk was about Tonina and the Big Rejection. That’s what the gossipers was calling it, “The Big Rejection.” Rumors spread that Janey had planned the whole thing because Tonina’s parents had reported the grocery store to the health authorities. They were selling rotten meat.
But it was just that—all rumors.
That evening, with flashing red lights and dozens of police offices, an ambulance with blaring sirens made its way to Tonina’s home. Crowds gathered. Women in curlers and kimonos with men milling around in T-shirts trying to find out what happened.
According to chisme, Tonina went home, embarrassed and ashamed about the rejection. He tried hanging himself with an extension cord wrapped around a ceiling fan. From the scene, the two-by-four holding the ceiling fan couldn’t sustain his massive weight and Big Tonina came tumbling down along with the ceiling fan crashing down his head. Even the stool holding him was broken.
The story doesn’t end here.
It took three men to lift the body onto a gurney. They rushed him to the county hospital in undetermined condition. He was gambling against the Grim Reaper.
Tonina didn’t return to Cooper Junior High. His parents kept him out of school because they were afraid the taunting would continue, and Lucas might attempt another suicide. His doctors placed him on a protein diet and the pounds began melting off. Months passed. Tonina lost more weight. He began taking Kung-Fu classes at the local Y.
The Christmas Holidays let out until the new year. Tonina was going full steam doing his workouts and lifting weights and doing crunches even punching a speed ball.
* * * *
Early Spring came and Lucas Cruz returned to Cooper completely transformed. His parents had conferences with the school prinicipal and his homeroom advisory was changed. He looked muscular, firm and solid. The girls said he looked like Donny Osmond. His long, wavy hair and bright eyes gave him an aura of sublimility, a teen-idol looking pensive like those magazine headshots of angst-looking teens. He walked confidently. The counselors refused to believe it was Tonina. Mrs. Flanders was his new advisor.
When Lucas walked in, nobody recognized him as Tonina because none of the guys ever called him by his real name. His parents had asked that they refer to him by David, his middle name. Old Tonina, the big tub of guts who waddled around school was long gone, and David Lucas Cruz had taken his place. David, the eye-candy to cheerleaders, and the perfect specimen to Michelangelo’s nude artwork.
A day before Spring Break, Coach Covington and Head Coach Brown held a Kungfu demonstration to see how many boys might sign up for a special training course given free by the neighborhood YMCA. David was the special instructor. Not many boys wanted to sign up, until Coach Brown offered them tickets to concerts and free movie passes.
Martin Gonzalez and Felipe Munoz, along with Cowboy and Manfred, quickly volunteered. They had kept their distance from David because they couldn’t remember him at all. When they were told, they’d often mistaken him for Tonina’s brother from Mexico. They couldn’t connect the dots.
Coach Covington stood on foamy blue mats with his whistle. We all wore gym shorts and T-shirts, but David wore his black belt and white regalia. Martin was first. The gym was jammed pack. Martin was a street fighter with an ability to sucker punch if he
caught you off guard. They all knew him as Dirty Martin, but no one told him that to his face.
“Orale, ese. Let’s see what you’ve got” Martin cracked.
David smiled and gave him the respectful bow and clasped hands. Covington blew his whistle.
Martin danced like Muhammad Ali, skipping and fluttering around David trying to land a punch. He moved closer to him and swung his leg toward his groin, but David was too fast. He blocked it with one hand while moving his leg up striking Martin in the bread basket. Within seconds, Martin was on the floor writhing and gasping for air. After a series of kicks, Martin left the mat in resignation.
Covington blew the whistle.
Next followed Stoic Felipe. The same thing happened to him and he was taken out in just three strikes. Cowboy and Manfred said they’d formed a tag-team match against David. Covington objected but David nodded agreeably to the terms. Cowboy landed a few surprise punches but not enough to sustain a victory. Manfred tried his best but lost his balance when a swift kick to the jaw downed him completely. The two boys surrendered with their lifted hands. The fight was over. As for me, David aka Lucas knew I had never been part of that incident because I had tried to warn him.
* * * * *
I wish I could say that this has a happy ending, but poor Lucas Cruz fell in love with the girl who had rejected him. The fates had intervened: Janey and David became a couple. Deep down, Old Lucas had never gotten over Janey. The summer before transferring to Lanier High, Lucas confessed his true identity to Janey. She already knew his identity because his mother had revealed it to her mother. They two love-birds were destined for happiness and all that jazz. But things like that only happen in fairytales and movies. It’s not how life works.
Against my advice, David dropped out and they got married. The marriage produced a little girl name Providence, who died a year later. Janey’s father had been against the marriage all along and intervened to have it annulled. But it was too late. Both of them took it hard. A year later, Janey got to drinking and Lucas let himself go.
Within time, David got depressed and regained his total weight. The old Lucas had emerged. With failure all around him—his Janey stoned and drunk most of the time—Lucas took his life by crashing his car into Mac truck. Their story became legend, a cautionary tale.
It was during our class reunion that his name came up. I never forgot Lucas. Or the guys who taunted him. They are long gone,
some dying from drug overdose and alcoholic addition, others fading in the dustbin of history. But Big Tonina still haunts the collective memory of the West Side, bigger than La Llorona. Now that’s another story.
Rafael Castillo is the author of Distant Journeys (Bilingual Revieew Press) and Aurora (Berkeley Press).