Los Angeles, 2013
The kid’s big toes hung through holes in his street-worn Air Jordans, far enough to curl down and scratch the hot asphalt. It was time for new shoes, but Jordans cost more than he had.
The busted kicks held on long enough to get him to the Walmart three blocks outside the safety of his neighborhood. As his older brother said, “Long as you ain’t stealin’ from no local shops and you ain’t crossin’ the wrong colors, take what you want. But don’t fuckin’ get busted, mano.”
The sliding glass doors whirred open.
A few feet inside, an elderly black man who should have been spending his days sitting on a porch stood with slumped shoulders, wearing a button-down and a plastic badge. As the kid breezed past with his head down, his eyes landed on the leather holster hanging off the security guard’s hip.
Most of the other store employees were also black, not the types to care about his brown skin so long as he didn’t set off any alarms. Still, the orbs in the ceiling followed him past aisle three, four, and then up number five. He passed notepads, pencils, and other office supplies until he found one of the items he needed: a pair of scissors.
He crouched behind a cardboard display and tore them from the plastic packaging, then turned his attention to the shoes. He sawed the blades back and forth when cutting got hard, and eventually the entire toe of his Air Jordans lifted off the thin rubber sole like a yawning pit bull’s open jaw.
A shelf stocker rounded the corner, pushing a cart.
The kid scrambled to hide the open packaging behind his back, but in the process his elbow bumped the cardboard display. A greeting card fell open to the ground, and a tinny jingle began to play. In a panic, he snatched up the card and held it to his face, pretending to read. The high-pitched song wished him a happy Siblings Day.
Not if I get fucking pinched by fucking Walmart, he thought, knowing his brother would end him.
The shelf stocker stopped at his feet. Thick-framed prescription glasses magnified his eyes. A walkie-talkie hung from the young man’s belt. His finger tapped . . . tapped . . . tapped . . . the button capable of radioing the security guard and his pistol.
Scooby noticed the packaging only partially behind his back.
“Look, man, they don’t pay me enough to bust your ass,” the shelf stocker said. “Just clean that shit up when you’re done.” He straightened the cardboard display and moved on, wheeling his cart up the aisle.
With an exhale, the kid cut the other shoe open quickly, then wrapped duct tape around the front half, turning a size seven into a size eight—an ugly size eight, but it would have to do.
The shoes didn’t turn out how he envisioned them. The kid had tried to cover up the silver, and now white spray paint was dripping off the duct tape. Still, he walked taller, glad, at least, to have the hole covered up. Maybe they looked good from a distance.
As he passed a swap meet in an abandoned parking lot off Venice, a stuffed animal caught his attention. The grinning dog toy hung from a folding table that bordered the sidewalk.
“Yo, man. What you want for the stuffed Scooby Doo?”
The man behind the table wore a cut T-shirt, showing off faded tattoos on his biceps, dip stuffed in his bottom lip. “Ten.”
“Dollars?” Fucking mierda. The fur was tattered and an eye was missing. “You do any less than ten?” But the kid couldn’t hide the desperation; he needed the thing.
The man raised his brows. “Nah.” He spit.
The kid dug deep into the pockets of his baggy jeans and pulled out everything that jingled. Pennies, nickels, dimes, and a couple quarters—a buck fifty maybe. “C’mon, man, this all the coin I got. It’s for my baby sister. She loves that dog. Loves it so much she started calling me Scooby.”
“Sorry, vato.” Vato meant dude, but the man said it more like wetback, river nigger, or any of the other slurs Scooby got regularly.
The tattoos on the man’s arms—a cross, the word “mother,” a bird—didn’t rep any gangs to worry about. Scooby wavered, on the verge of making a run at the stuffed animal, but he swallowed his pride for his baby sister, and tried one more angle before risking it. “Please? She cries all the time. Scooby is like the only thing that makes her happy. Anything I can swap you?”
His dirt-smudged tank top? Worthless. His street-scuffed jeans? Nope. The man leaned over the table enough to catch the logo on the shoes. “What size those Jordans?”
“My shoes? For real?” Scooby slid his feet another inch toward the table to ensure the spray-painted duct tape on the toes stayed out of view.
“Yeah, what size?” the man asked. “Got a boy about your age who might like ’em.”
“Eight,” he said, guessing the new size with authority. “How will I get home, though?”
The guy spit again. “Not my problem.”
Scooby hesitated, only to make the bigger man feel like he was getting the deal, then he nodded. “All right.”
When the man turned to grab the stuffed animal, Scooby rushed to kick off the high tops and slide the front toe of both shoes under a Run DMC record on the table.
The man handed over the soft stuffed animal with one hand and reached for the Air Jordans with the other. He lifted the shoes in front of his face. The edge of the duct tape was visible under the spray paint in one spot. His forehead wrinkled with confusion. With his fingernail, he picked at the edge of the white splotchy material. White paint rubbed off, revealing more duct tape underneath. “The fuck is this shit?”
But by the time he realized he’d been ripped off, the kid was already gone.
Walking down the street in bare feet hurt after a couple blocks. Even though Scooby scanned for sharp pebbles, he got a piece of a forty stuck in his heel and had to stop to pick the shard out.
Aside from the glass, land mines of dog shit made things even more treacherous. As he passed gated houses, pit bulls showed fanged teeth from behind fences. One home had been converted to a church; “Iglesia de Cristo” spray-painted onto particleboard.
Laughter echoed down the street from young kids playing tag. They were younger than twelve, Scooby’s age, still kids. He held the ratty stuffed animal tucked under his arm and picked up the pace to get home to his sister with the present.
The dog had been her cartoon babysitter for the past year while their mother “worked.” Scooby regularly flipped on reruns to distract her, and often they watched together as the cowardly animal somehow always saved the day. For hours after an episode they would imitate the dog, pronouncing every word with an R. Howling “Rooby Rooby Roo!” always made Sophía crack up.
“Shit,” Scooby muttered, stopping to inspect the bottom of his foot. A piece of glass protruded from the dirty, soft skin under his big toe. When he pulled it out, blood dripped. He thought about trying to wrap the wound with something—his shirt maybe?—but just then, a white car with tinted windows and thumping bass turned in at the end of the street.
Scooby put both feet back on the ground. He didn’t need to deal with this. Not now. Not a block from his side of Hoover, where nobody would dare to touch him. He hurried forward, each step leaving a small dot of blood on the sidewalk.
Be cool, he told himself. Don’t look back. The bumping from the car’s subwoofer shook the trunk. As it grew louder, Scooby hurried.
Parked cars lined the street. Through the reflection in a windshield, he could make out shiny silver rims. In the next windshield, the reflection was big enough for him to determine the make of the car. An old Cadillac, maybe the man from the swap meet coming after him.
The next windshield revealed four black teenagers in the car, their faces vibrating with the distortion from the subs. Whoever it was, he didn’t want to find out.
Hoover Street—the safety of his hood—now just half a block away. Don’t look back, he urged himself. But he couldn’t resist. Scooby glanced over his shoulder.
Red hats. Bandanas. He bolted.
Tires squealed. The car roared up next to him.
With a thud, it jumped the curb and blocked his path. Scooby turned and scrambled the other way. His feet skidded. Something sharp dug into his feet, but pulsing adrenaline overpowered the pain. Run. Run fast.
The four boys leaped out, bigger and stronger than Scooby.
Just get to Hoover, mano. He pumped his arms hard, running down the middle of the street. The stuffed animal jounced by his side, but he kept a tight grip. Just get to Hoover. But a hand clamped down on his shoulder.
He broke free. Then another hand. Scooby twisted, but they were all over him, dragging his weak frame to the asphalt until he skidded to a stop with only the back of his head as a brake pad.
For a moment, he flailed as blows rained down on his torso. Nothing he did deterred them.
“I ain’t into no shit,” he begged. “I ain’t no Lord.”
But anger was alive in their eyes, and the punches kept on coming. Fighting would only make things worse, so Scooby hugged the stuffed animal with both arms and stopped struggling.