Tio Fernando’s Field Trip

I like this story for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the first true short fiction piece I’ve had published. Like, really published in a real magazine. You can buy the collector’s edition here….

Secondly the roots of this story are real. Tio Fernando was a real person, as was his wish for me to take him to a cock fight. Can you imagine?

Image result for fighting cock, creative commons

Tio Fernando’s Field Trip

Even though I’d never been arrested before, I knew logically that I was in trouble, but not real trouble. It was a simple misdemeanor—a fine at most. No, the real threat to my freedom, if not life itself, stood at the other end of the fingernail waving a few inches from my nose.

“You took my uncle to a cockfight?” There was no arguing the point, and it really wasn’t a question so much as an opening statement so I kept my fat mouth shut. My wife didn’t slow down even a bit. “…My 75 year old uncle… To a cockfight… That you found on Instagram?”

It was Facebook, but this wasn’t the time to point out her lack of social media savvy. I also couldn’t dispute the facts in evidence. Yes, I’d taken 75 year old Tio Fernando to a cockfight. One I indeed found on Facebook. That got raided. Probably because it was on Facebook.

Tio Fernando, shifting foot to foot, shaking like a Puerto Rican hobbit, chose this moment to butt in. “Connie, ees no big deal…”

“Tio, cállate!” The Fingernail of Death swung in his direction now, and those big brown cow eyes of his widened significantly. At barely five feet, Fernando was shorter than most people already, and his niece was a head taller than he, even without her hair standing on end. At the moment, follicles included, she looked about six-four. To his credit, his mouth snapped shut, but not before giving me a wink that didn’t go unnoticed. I knew cállate meant “shut up.” I wish I knew the Spanish for, “you’re not helping.”

The desk sergeant behind the glass dropped his head into the arms folded across his desk in a vain effort to stifle a chuckle. It seemed like kicking me when I was down, but when you create a scene in the lobby of the Foothills Division station, you pretty much have it coming.  He whispered a sympathetic, “you are so screwed. Good luck,” as he handed me my wallet, keys and directions to the impound lot. Then my wife, her uncle, and I marched single file out the door, down the steps and two hundred and twenty-four long, echoing steps to the parking lot without saying another word.

Connie snatched the keys from me and waved me to the passenger side of the minivan with the back of her hand. Fernando already stood there, claiming shotgun. I sulked in the back seat wedged against the car seat for the ride home, dodging the optical death rays reflecting off the rear view mirror.

If I were feeling braver, I’d have pointed out that this whole thing was largely her fault as much as anyone’s. I wasn’t the one who insisted Tio Fernando stay with us when he came from Puerto Rico to visit his sister—my mother in law—in the hospital.

He arrived a week ago from Ponce with a huge suitcase, a limited English vocabulary (30% of which consisted of variations on “ees okay,” or “no problem”) and a limitless need for attention and Don Q rum. Fortunately, he liked the cheap stuff so it wasn’t expensive but it wasn’t as easy to get on the West Coast as in Miami, and took several trips to sketchy areas of the Valley to find.

After two days at his sister’s bedside, he realized the old girl was not going to die—which was a good thing, I grant you—nor was she going to be coming home to cook for him and do everything but wipe his butt as she usually did when he visited. This led to him moping around our house and bugging me whenever I looked like I might actually get some work done.

That, in turn, led to a two-day long domino tournament, during which he took me for forty bucks, mostly by changing the rules as he went along. Whenever I complained, he’d petulantly explain the reason for my loss in long, meandering monologues he knew damned well I didn’t understand. He could have been explaining in Klingon for all it mattered, since he was lying through his missing teeth anyway.

When not swindling me, he followed Connie around like a Labrador with an empty food dish. Finally, she had enough and snapped. “For the love of God get him out of here.”

“What am I supposed to do with him? I can’t even talk to him.” That and I was low on cash since he’d taken it all.

“I don’t care where you go, just someplace else. I need a break.”

Like I said, with those parameters, this was pretty much—at least partly—on her. What was I going to do with a doddering, half-deaf, congenitally dishonest old man who barely spoke English? The few times I’d met him he admitted caring about only two things: cockfighting and baseball. Technically he had a third passion, but I believed the tales of his hot young girlfriend back in Bayamon even less than I bought his interpretation of the rules of dominoes. In fact, I kind of got the sense she might have been… well, let’s call her a rental. And if it came down to taking Connie’s uncle to either a cockfight or a cathouse, there wasn’t much of a choice.  It was baseball or roosters, and the Dodgers were in Cincinnati til Monday.

So I found myself sitting at my desk, one night, shaking my head and thinking, “right, where do I find a cockfight in Los Angeles?”. That, of course, led to a Google search from which I learned two things. First, you can find cockfights in L.A. County pretty easily. The second point, just take it from me, is that you have to be sure to spell that as one word. If you spell cockfight as two separate words… well let’s just say some video you can’t un-see.

I should have remembered from being a teenaged boy that the longer you kick an idea around the less ludicrous it seems. I admit I descended the ladder of outrage quickly from being scandalized at the notion of watching animals abuse each other for human amusement, to rationalizing it, then to actually kind of looking forward to it. After all, Hemingway had taken the objectively horrible bull fight and elevated it to high art (or at least managed to pretend like it was and inflict it on generations of school kids). Dog fights, of course, were out of the question. At least with a bullfight the human has a chance of getting gored and the bull a measure of revenge. And dogs were man’s best friend. Roosters fighting, though, seemed somehow less quantifiably evil after a couple of rounds of “yeah, but…” I mean, even some vegetarians I know make an exception for eating chickens and eggs. Once you make peace with the idea that some life forms are lower than others, the rest is depressingly easy.

My search turned up some interesting facts. First, many people thought the gamecock should have been our national symbol. Secondly, cockfighting is the national sport of both Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In fact, YouTube video from the Las Palmos arena in Bayamon—Tio Fernando’s usual haunt—showed a government-subsidized facility complete with comfy seats and electronic score boards. I’ve seen less civilized MMA gyms. For sure the contestants were less frightening and sported fewer tattoos.

This being Los Angeles, we had far more Filipinos than Puerto Ricans, so I followed that trail down the rabbit hole. I asked my neighbor Amado if he knew anything about cockfighting which led to a three-beer explanation of the rules, nuances and grand tradition of Filipino cockfighting, and why it was wildly superior to the “bobo pangit Mexicano” version. He seemed indifferent to the cultural differences between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, which is more than I can say for most Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, but I’m guessing gamecock fans in general aren’t too worried about political correctness. After drunkenly swearing me to silence, he gave me the name of a cousin, Avalino Guinto, who had a disposable cell phone, a highly illegal arena somewhere out the ass end of Sunland, and the afore-mentioned Facebook page.

And that’s how, two days later, I found myself in a dusty parking lot somewhere between San Fernando Boulevard and the Hansen dam. I’d gotten lost twice in Pacoima, which are words I never in a million years thought I’d ever utter but it was a day of firsts. Even the GPS circled me around twice before I found the opening in the curb as if giving me a chance to change my mind. After a bouncing trek down a winding gravel driveway we dead ended behind a scrap yard. My semi-clean, candy apple red, 2014 Honda stood out like a Lamborghini among the sea of dilapidated pickups—half of which had lawn mowers in the back—and rusted out Monte Carlos and Mercury Marquis.

Fernando barely waited for the car to come to a halt before leaping out and shouting joyfully as if I’d just deposited him at the gates of Mecca. To be sure, it seemed just about that foreign. I was a head taller and three shades paler than anyone else in the place. Tio grabbed my elbow, propelling me towards the crowd, jabbering away a mile a minute. The only words I caught were “gracias,” “amigo” and “los malditos filipinos” which he said with that crooked cheesy 20-toothed smile of his, so I presume he meant it affectionately.

Security consisted of several large Latino gang members who couldn’t even be bothered hiding their shoulder holsters and the mini-cannons they contained. More than likely, Cousin Avalino had some unwanted silent Mexican partners in his business. The sentries sat like vato gargoyles on top of rusty oil barrels, crossed ham-sized, multicolored biceps across their chest and watched everyone approach through slitted, reptilian eyes. Those eyes got a little wider when I approached, and one of them actually sat a bit more upright, but after a whispered conversation and more laughter than I thought necessary, they nodded and let me through. The ugliest one even offered a wave and a “have fun, bro”. Tio Fernando waved back and shouted something over his shoulder that I’m pretty sure made me sound like the idiot nephew. It drew big laughs, at any rate. Who knew the old guy was funny?

We walked through a gate in a corrugated metal wall out of the California sunshine and into the Third World.  Dozens of chestnut-colored men in dust-caked jeans and t-shirts formed a three-body-wide circle around an oblong sand pit. Fernando immediately elbowed his way into the crowd and I watched his white cotton-ball head bob through the sea of straw cowboy and trucker hats. I barely had to stand on tiptoe to see in, and that was as close as I really wanted to get.

A fight was already underway and the shrieks of the birds sliced through the wall of Tagalog and Spanish emanating from the onlookers. Red, green and black flashed back and forth across the arena. The combatants jumped, flapped and slashed at each other, the sun glinting off the parts of the spurs—the espalons, according to my internet guides—not dulled by blood. One bird finally stood atop the other, slashing and crowing until a sad-looking Filipino in a MicroSoft Windows 7 t-shirt picked his fallen warrior up by the ankle and trudged away, leaving the head, comb and beak behind in the sand.

As a lump of yesterday’s lunch crawled up my throat, I watched someone in a white silk shirt—I’m guessing the mysterious entrepreneur Cousin Avalino—try to shush the crowd, then give up and announce the winner at the top of his lungs. That started a torrent of non-English shouting, laughing, cursing or complaining, depending on which bird each attendee had their money on.

Fernando turned and waved a handful of bills my way, most of which had been mine before the Great Domino Debacle. He gleefully took a couple more bills from the old Asian man with the pre-pubescent moustache next to him and fanned them out to show off his winnings. I lifted a hand in weak congratulations. Then I turned away to watch the scene around me.

Despite my initial reaction, I got drawn in. From where I stood (white, tall and 30 feet away) I wasn’t part of it at all. I was Papa at the Corrida des Toros, or Anthony Bourdain sitting down to a meal of wart-hog spleen; an observer and participant removed from any actual responsibility for what was happening in front of me. I was a writer… an adventurer… a neutral observer reserving moral judgment. I didn’t have to condone what was happening, I just wanted to see it for myself and report back to the civilized world.

What I saw was actually pretty cool, and three fights in, I had to admit I was enjoying myself. Not only was I experiencing something none of the other typical suburban work-at-home dads I knew had ever seen, it was (deep down) just another sporting event. Before long I took to mentally judging the participants, winning more than I lost, at least in my head. Forty five minutes later I was sheepishly handing a real twenty-dollar bill over to a young guy whose champion- a giant brute of a red—tore my well-considered favorite to shreds in under thirty seconds.

That dampened the mood a bit, and I thought about leaving. Scanning the crowd for my wife’s uncle, Fernando was nowhere to be seen. When I finally spotted him, the old guy was smiling and laughing, slapping backs and sharing a bottle of Don Q with a couple of fat little guys.—probably  Indonesian or something. God bless the American melting pot. He was happier than I’d ever seen him; like a five-year-old finding new playmates on the monkey bars, and I knew there was no pulling him away. I kind of envied the little bastard.

The tawdriness of the scene did start to get to me though. Curiosity was eventually replaced by an attack of liberal guilt. With more than a little embarrassment, I paced back and forth along the outside of the crowd for a while, watching and taking mental notes until I felt the eyes of those young guards burn into my skull. Curiosity probably wasn’t a healthy emotion to demonstrate, under the circumstances. It seemed long past time I took it outside to the parking lot.

I crossed my arms across my chest, leaned on the hood of my car and closed my eyes. I sniffed in the dust and sweat and the mild copper tang of blood in the air. Against dust-caked eyelids I felt the late afternoon sun char my skin and knew I’d be lobster-red for days. From across the lot, I heard the buzz of the spectators, the clucking and screaming of birds, and—somewhere off towards Van Nuys Boulevard—a faint WHAW-whaw-WHAW-whaw of what sounded an awful lot like police sirens.

I watched like an idiot as the police cruisers, then the black armored buses, crunched into the lot.  A plain-clothes detective got out of his car and held up his phone as if making sure that what he saw matched the Facebook page on his screen.

I didn’t even try to run or complain. The young Latino cop shook his head and said, “really dude?” as he tightened the zip ties around my wrists. I wanted to explain that I was just watching… then I realized that’s exactly why I was under arrest and chose to keep quiet. As he frog-marched me into the bus, I did ask the kid to look out for Tio Fernando.

“What’s he look like?” The officer looked about twelve. He almost couldn’t resist calling me sir.

“He’s 75 years old. Stands about 5 nothing, Latino, doesn’t speak much English”

He sniffed. “Yeah, that narrows it down, but I’ll take a look.”

It wasn’t too much longer before Tio Fernando waddled down the center aisle of the bus, hands strapped in front of him with a big grin on his face, like he’d just been to the zoo. He plunked down beside me and gave me his best conspiratorial smile. “Ees okay.”

“You think so, Tio?”

He laughed. “No, Connie’s gonna keel you.” Then he put his head back and calmly closed his eyes. This was obviously not the old guy’s first rodeo. There were unplumbed depths to Tio Fernando. I would have to either teach him more English or learn Spanish if we were going to hang out.

If I lived long enough, that is. Judging from the speed at which Connie pulled into the garage and slammed on the brakes, that was going to be an open question for a while. She slammed the car into “park” and got out, stomping through the garage and flinging open the door to the laundry room. The Finger of Death beckoned us inside the house. I nodded meekly and opened the car door, rubbing the bright red marks on my wrists.

Fernando leapt out of the front passenger seat and happily scratched his belly. As Connie’s shadow disappeared into the house, he winked at me. “Tomorrow we find girls, okay?”

I shook my head. “Tio, cállate.” Then I took a deep breath and followed the wife inside.