“Ever rob a house, G-W?” Juan asks.
We’re hiding behind trashcans in a breezeway at night, splitting six packs and watching a three story twelve flat across the street. Juan has four illegal Michoacan cousin. Paulo, Felix, and Eru are with us. Nuni isn’t there. It’s been a month and none of them mention Nuni, but all stop draining beers to stare at me until I shake my head.
“There’s some rules upfront you got to follow,” Juan says talking quick like at work. His accent is a hybrid Chicagian bluntness and Spanish smooth. “Rules are important for staying alive.” His construction boots plant. Dark eyes lock mine. “Understand me?”
I touch the inside of my palm that cups my wife’s pregnant belly when we sleep. Felt a kick there this morning. Maybe, it was a kick. I work forty a week, go to night school, no family in this town, and need a crib. Even second-hand cribs are expensive. Juan heard me complain and said there was a way. Now I’m here. It had to be a kick. I say, “Follow the rules.”
“I knew you were the right man for the job,” Juan says relaxing.
“Thanks. What’s my job?”
“G-W we need you to ring the buzzer beside the second name on the first floor three times.”
I think this is a joke, but the cousins who speak no English except cusswords and ‘No problem, G-W’ intensely study the windows across the street that are dark or covered in aluminun foil, so say, “First floor. Second name. Three times.”
“Good. You know why?” Juan asks.
“That’s funny,” Juan says smiling, but steps closer like this is important, “Dealers don’t answer a door rung once or twice and I don’t want to break into a dealer’s place again while he’s there.”
“Again?” I say ready to leave. Stripper glitter would be easier to explain away on my wife than this.
“My first time, I didn’t know about the three rings. I climbed into a bathroom window, knock over this Kleenex box and there’s this guy in a robe at the sink cleaning a gun.”
“What?” I say lighting a cig not wanting but wanting to hear the story.
“He’s shoving a wire brush into the barrel like he’s fucking it. I’m halfway in and my Lady gets hooked on a nail,” Juan says patting something under his shirt above the heart.
“You don’t have one?” Juan asks surprised, sticks his hand down the lip of his t-shirt, and withdraws a gold Lady of Guadalupe medal on a chain. “I’m named after Juan Diego. I take my Lady with me everywhere. So she’s hooked on a nail. If I jumped backwards, she’d break.” Juan points out the bathroom. “On the back of the toilet is another pistol. Nine-millimeter. Loaded. This guy checks me looking at the nine-millimeter. My lady is stuck. There’s no way I can reach the nine-millimeter before him. I’m dead.”
“What happened?” I ask thinking there are other ways to get a crib.
“Your mind plays all kinds of weird tricks on you your first time,” Juan says touching his Lady to his forehead, “Thinking stupid stuff, like how many miles to a gallon does my car get, and I just blurt out, ‘Is John here?””
“Is John here?”
“Isn’t that fucked up? I don’t even know anyone named John. I prayed to my Lady there wasn’t a John there and please keep me alive,” Juan says shaking his head. “So the guy pulls the wire brush out of the barrel, shoves it an inch from my face, says, ‘no John here’ and…” Juan closes his eyes. “And unhooks my Lady from the nail.”
I exhale relieved.
Juan kisses his Lady and says, “I swear he was going to shove that thing up my nose, but he was all right. He had a Lady on his neck, too.”
“Man, I jumped backwards and ran,” Juan says putting away the medal. “Understand about the three rings?”
“Good. Then wait for someone to answer the door. Sometimes it takes awhile, these places are bigger inside then they look. Just wait.”
“What if they buzz the intercom?”
“We checked. No intercom. Cheap landlord.”
“What do I do if the first-floor-second-name person answers the door?”
Juan thumbs at his cousins and says, “These guys wouldn’t think to ask that. They would wait for me to tell them everything, but this is better. This is like a conversation.”
“Thanks,” I say feeling smart. “So if someone answers…”
“Ask them, ‘Is John here?’”
“We’ll be here waiting.”
“In the breezeway?” I ask worrying they’ll abandon me.
“That’s what this place is?” Juan says turning to the cousins and raising his hands like directing planes at O’hare, “G-W dice que está llamado un breezeway.”
“Breezeway,” Paulo says tasting the syllables, “Universidad vato!”
“They know you’re in college,” Juan says slapping my shoulder. “You’re going to be a famous writer one day.”
Our day job is construction. We turn section-eights into condos. Whenever our boss, Tim runs to Home Depot I sneak homework. Everyone thought I was writing reports on them for Tim until Juan snuck up and read a werewolf story I was revising. He asked if writers get laid a lot. I told him I hoped so. Since then, everyone stopped working when Tim was gone.
“You’re going to be the next Stephen King!” Juan says in the breezeway. “Write about us one day, but change the names and make me taller, like six-two.”
“Okay, but what if whoever answers the door is named John?”
“No one in that building is named John. We’ve watched it for weeks.”
“No whites in there. You ever met a Mexican named John?”
“Where I grew up the only thing Mexican was Chi-Chi’s restaurant.”
Four Mexicans burst out laughing. We’re making a lot of noise for people ready to break the law.
Felix cups his hands over his chest and asks, “Pequeño o poco?”
Everyday I regret taking French in High School.
“Chi-chi’s means tits in Spanish,” Juan says.
Memories of birthday parties with clapping waiters and fried ice cream are forever altered. I ask, “It’s spelled the same?”
“You’re sure there’s no John over there?”
Juan rubs his hands together like there’s dice between them, “Look, if it bothers you, then ask for a Bob or Steve. We don’t use those names at Baptism. John is just tradition.”
“So I ask for John…”
Juan pretends to answer a door, “And they say, no John here. So you leave. Don’t look at us. Walk down the street to the dumpster behind the corner store and wait for us. There’s another house we’ve been watching.”
“Yeah?” I say surprised at Juan’s efficiency. He’s not like this at work.
“The construction sites a block away. From the roof we scout the whole neighborhood.”
“Tim would shit himself.”
Juan scowls, “Tim’s a cocksucker.”
Paulo angrily spits.
Felix laughs, “Patron pinche vato.”
Eru has fallen asleep. He does this at work, just leans against the wall, closes his eyes, and snores.
Juan says, “You know he pays us less then you for the same job?”
“Because we’re Mexican. These guys are immigrants. I was born here. My parents immigrated.” Juan says with disgust and shrugs. “No hard feelings, G-W. We know he makes you pay taxes. We don’t pay taxes. Cash and carry.”
Now I feel cheated.
Juan says, “We know you have a kid coming. You need extra cash for the kid. We need five guys so we asked you.”
I’m pissed at being a charity case and say, “Why don’t we just rob Tim?”
Juan explains this to the others who laugh. He says, “It would blow our cover. If we don’t have a job, but have cash, then cops always come around.”
I drop it, think crib and ask, “What if they don’t answer the door?”
“You bring the stuff I told you?”
“Yeah,” I say opening my backpack for a phone, student ID, and a book.
“We’ll go into that building’s breezeway and through the window of the place you rung three times,” Juan says pressing seven digits on my phone. “This is my number. If cops come, hit the talk button. We’ll hear everything and decide to sit or run out the back. Otherwise, just sit on the steps and watch for cops.”
“Just sit in front of everyone?” I say taking my phone back and imagine the street has a million eyes ready to pick me out of a line up.
“Read the book. If they see you reading a book, they won’t suspect you’re doing anything wrong.”
“Bullshit,” I say feeling they’re setting me up.
“Stay calm and listen. You know those dealers at the bus stop on Milwaukee and Chicago?”
“Cops are always busting that corner.”
“Well they always get busted cause they look like their doing something wrong. Cops say, ‘What are you doing?’ They say ‘nothing’ and get arrested. So I thought what if they sat there reading something? Cop says what are you doing? They say, reading to improve myself. Cops wouldn’t know what to do and just drive off for a donut.”
“You’re saying no one here is ever seen reading a book?”
“There ain’t a library for twenty blocks. If there is, no one can tell you where it is,” Juan says frowning. “That’s why I asked you to be our fifth, cause I always see you improving yourself when Tim’s not around. You read a book and no cops going to bother G-W while we’re inside that place.”
For some odd reason this makes sense, but I ask, “What if a cop stops anyway?”
“Tell them you’re a poor student living here cause it’s cheap,” Juan says. “You’re doing homework outside because the Beaner music makes it too hard to concentrate inside. If they ask for proof, show your student ID.”
“Student ID’s don’t have your address on it. Cops can’t prove you don’t live here.”
“Oh,” I say impressed. This might work. “Why aren’t you in college?”
“Cause then my cousins here, “ Juan says nodding to the others, “would think I was different and kick my ass. It would be just like high school all over again.” I don’t realize I’m staring until he looks away. “G-W, we have different rules on the west side.”
“Sorry,” I say wondering where Juan will be in five years.
“Nothing you can do about it,” Juan says raising his hand. “Let me see your book. It’s not porn?”
“It’s for my class,” I say handing it over.
“Which class?” Juan says taking it.
“Critical reading and writing,” I say embarrassed of my other world.
“I thought you knew how to read and write?”
“No, it’s about doing stuff so a story makes sense,” I say but the classroom, professor at a podium, arguments of academics who don’t need a crib suddenly makes no sense in this breezeway. “There’s rules to writing.”
“Like?” He says opening the book.
My mind’s blank. Credited hours evaperate. I see my shadow on the wall and say, “Foreshadowing.”
“You told me about going into the window with the guy cleaning his gun.”
“That was so fucked up.”
“Well if this was a story, foreshadowing is like, because you mentioned there was a gun in a place you entered before, then there would be a gun in the window you’re going through tonight.”
Juan looks livid and says, “You trying to jinx us?”
“I was just…”
“I trust you and bring you along…” Juan paces. The cousins get nervous.
A siren whines. Street becomes red and blue flashes. A cop car is close.
“Don’t move,” Juan says flattening against his wall.
“We haven’t done anything,” I say but obey.
“Man I wish I was white,” Juan hisses at me. “Over here you don’t have to do anything to get arrested. These guys get kickbacks from the bondsman.”
“You’re making that up.”
The cop car sounds almost on top of us.
“You jinxed us,” Juan growls. Immigrant cousins look terrified. One prays.
“Foreshadow means to hint at something that’ll come later,” I say glaring back at him. “Sorry, I didn’t have a Lady on to help me.”
The cops drive off.
Juan laughs and says, “I’ll bring you a Lady on Monday.”
I feel had and say, “You were seeing what I would say if a cop stops me.”
“I had you going though,” Juan smiles slyly and taps the paperback’s cover. “This guy, Mariano Azuela. He Mexican?”
I’m pissed, but nod.
“The Underdogs,” Juan says. “I like the sound of it.”
“Azuela was with the farmers during the Mexican Revolution.”
“September sixteenth. We drive around with flags that day.”
“In the book, just as they begin to win, they turn on each other.”
Juan looks troubled and says, “Why?”
“Women and money.”
“That’s what Beaners do,” Juan says returning my book. “That’s what I do.”
I put the book into my backpack, tighten straps, and say, “Three rings?”
“Yeah, it’s in the numbers,” Juan says steering me out the breezeway. “The last rule you’ve got to know about is the numbers.”
“Numbers?” I say looking both ways as we cross. The street is dead.
“First floor. Second apartment. Three rings. Four guys go in. Five guys for the job,” He says as if this should be obvious. “Adds up to fifteen, which is the day of the month we always do this. Today.”
“Your plan is all based on superstition?”
“I’m Mexican and Catholic, of course I’m superstitious,” He says walking me to the sidewalk across the street, “If I don’t have cops after me here, I have devils in the after life, but there is money to be made now.”
“You sure there’s money in there?”
Juan looks hurt I’ve doubted him and says, “Immigrants get paid cash and can’t use banks. They put it in corners of a room under the rug. You always check the corners of the rug, even if it’s nailed down, because who installs carpet in Chicago?”
Juan waits until I answer, “Immigrants?”
“Yeah. Immigrants get stupid with the cash they’re supposed to wire home. They get comfortable and want to bring their families here. They sack that money except for liquor. I can’t hold drinking against them. You stand outside Home Depot in December sober,” Juan says and shivers. “Now we just take the money and go. No appliances. Fastest way to County is carrying a wide screen TV down an alley. Do we call it quits here and now or you our fifth?”
I’m nicking bad, so light a cig. Something about the fifteenth of the month bothers me. One of my duties at work is collecting and verifying all the time cards before turning them into Tim. Last month I collected five time cards. Now I collect four. I say, “Nuni was your fifth.”
“That dumbass,” Juan says looking busted. “Nuni couldn’t follow the rules. He couldn’t stay on the steps, but followed us in and started going through the place the cereal is kept.”
“The pantry?” I ask remembering Nuni’s smashed down nose like an arrow to his big mouth.
“Yeah, he was saying stupid shit like, ‘look they have Lucky Charms’, and grabbing the box,” Juan says acting out Nuni. “Then he was opening up some Pop Tarts and saying, ‘Look Pop Tarts. Strawberry.’”
I try not to laugh, “No?”
“Yes. I hear sirens and my cousins are out the backdoor. I shout, ‘Nuni, we found nine hundred dollars under the rug, I’ll buy you Pop Tarts, dumbass!’ but he was like ‘I’ll be right there. They taste better toasted,’” Juan says with rage. “We left. Fuck Pop Tarts. The cops caught him climbing out the window carrying Lucky Charms and Pop Tarts. They took him to County.”
“For stealing food?”
“No. He punched a cop that tried to take his Pop Tarts.”
“Dumbass,” I say. “Man, county.”
“He’s good as dead there,” Juan sighs. “Just follow the rules and everyone stays alive. We got to do this tonight cause I can’t wait another month.”
“I’m not going to county,” I say and start to back away.
“Just focus on what you need the money for,” Juan says blocking my exit. “You got your kid coming. I got my mother who’s got diabetes. My Dad is in Heaven. Mom scrubs toilets in office buildings for minimum wage. I have to buy her medicine. I pay for her cell phone, cause I don’t know if she’s going to, God forbid, kill over while she’s scrubbing a toilet for minimum wage.”
I search his face if this is made up. He looks ashamed for reveiling so much. I look back at the cousins huddled in the breezeway. Feel their urgency. We’re all working on condos none of use can ever afford for assholes who don’t have to take any risk to buy medication, send money back to their families or get a crib for a baby and you have to take whatever you can grab. I say, “I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t need to. How long ‘til the baby?”
“That’s great. You know what it is?” Juan asks.
“She didn’t want to know.”
“Women are crazy that way.”
“Yeah, I can’t figure it out, but she’s happy.”
“Good, keep her like that. Don’t let her worry about money. Sometimes we find a little, sometimes lots. It’s a treasure hunt. You get twenty percent,” Juan says. “G-W follow the rules. Trust the numbers: one, two, three, four, five, into fifteen.” Juan turns away. “Now if you’ll go ring the buzzer…”
My mind’s playing tricks. I ask, “Why do you call me G-W?”
“What?” Juan shouts and then drops his tone. “If this was one of your stories, it would be a slow one.”
Juan rubs his chin, “Nuni started it. Dumbass asked one day, why is you working with Beaners, cause your white, but doing Beaner work. I said ‘Ask him’, but Nuni is shy with whites. I don’t get it because he wouldn’t shut the fuck up around us. So, the next day he went to get refried beans at Jewel-Osco cause we cook on propane at lunchtime.”
“Nuni brought this can back cause he didn’t think we would believe him. Nuni said, ‘this is him’,” Juan points to me, “and shows us the can says: Great Northern White Beans. We laughed our asses off. We didn’t know if you were from the north or not, so we dropped it,” Juan says shrugging. “So what’s, like, your real name?”
“My name’s John.”
“No shit?” Juan says raising his eyebrows. “Now, I know a John.”
“I’m ready,” I say dropping my cig. I can do this.
“Three times. Second name. First floor.”
“Okay,” I say stamping the cherry out.
“Stop,” Juan says staring at my foot.
I freeze like there’s a landmine.
“Wait here. I got to find out about this mark,” Juan says and runs to his cousins.
By my foot is a red spray-painted three-pointed crown facing the building.
Paulo sticks his head out, like a giraffe stretching out its neck and then dips back into shadow. I turn and the crown like a glaring warning sign before the building. A hand grips my shoulder. I spin.
Juan’s forehead is covered in sweat and says, “G-W. John. Think of your baby. Remember the rules. Things go right, walk to the corner store and this bag,” He holds up a contractor’s plastic bag, “filled with money will be in the dumpster. You have to find it. Take it to my mom’s house. You remember where she lives?”
I nod. Crib is closer. Juan keeps looking from the mark to the building. I wonder if this throws off the last rule, adding one for crown or three for points.
“Sit on my Mom’s back porch. She works graveyard shift. Read. Improve yourself. Us four will go to a club for a few hours so we have witnesses. Sorry, but you’d stick out there too much. We’ll be at my moms at midnight. Got it?”
“What about this mark?”
“Don’t worry. It’s old,” Juan says.
“It’s a gang symbol,” I say. I am the dumb white guy, Great Northern White Bean, ignoring my own world’s rules. “Does it change the numbers?”
“It’s Latin King, but it’s old. It doesn’t count. It’s zero. Nothing,” Juan says touching his Lady through his shirt. “I am nothing. A small rope. A tiny ladder. The tail end. A leaf…” He steps backwards. “It’s nothing.”
It had to be a kick. I step over the crown and ask, “Is John here?”
“That’s right, is Juan here?” He stutters and looks embarrassed, “Follow the rules. Stay alive.”
I ring three times.