Planchando (and Other Things I’ve Nearly Forgotten But Am Throwing Punches Not to Forget)
3 vatos. That’s how many I can count if I reach back as far as I can into my past.
A barrio memory.
A flicker of something irresistible, unfeasible.
Slick of sudor clinging to an older homeboy’s chin. From this ferocious heat, his neck brilloso--Sur Tejas style.
A bigote. A pompadour (black as aceite). 3 Flores and a tapa.
Tirantes pulled taut as tablas over ample pechos and shoulders as broad as all of the horizon. A frajo. A conical Salem, what’s been dismissed, floating in a basin of piss like a marooned vessel. And then, the shine. Simon. The shine of Stacy’s and pomade. The shine of a down-ass homeboy sweating under a blazing Aztlan sun. Neta. The shine is what I remember.
El Abuelo 
I’m ironing a shirt. Like chicharras, the starch snaps beneath the hot metal press. Creasing the cotton playera straight down the middle, it’s sudden. This flicker, this humming that emanates from the bone.
Over time, I’d forgotten this routine, the gauging of center, the creasing of a camiseta. Misplaced it somehow in the remolino of years since we lived with my Buelo after our pops jammed and my Moms had no place else to go with us and the first time I loved a vato. But it’s rheumatic, now, like bone extending itself, morphing slowly into the helix of all I struggle not to forget.
And I recall planchando, watching the bottle fill with spray, the starch boil angrily over a fierce blue kitchen flame. I ironed furiously in my past. Starching up Ben Davis and chones, even. Impressing my first vato with my ability to throw down a rowdy crease. Impeccable lines forged into cloth, sharp and precise, acute enough to splice open envy and captivate a vato’s wandering eye.
Sleepy from the Lion’s Den 
Again, there’s that cone-topped cigarette. What remains of it, ash and filter, swimming in piss and following me around incessantly, it seems.
“Ey, that’s your vato?”
"Simon que si,” I respond, proud and adamant and not knowing who the fuck is putting these words out in the air.
The old vato nods. Shakes his vergota so that whatever’s left in his dick flings rambunctiously into the urinal.
Near the back of the bar this veterano strikes up platica with my vato.
I’m 19. This goes down more than ten years ago, and yet, I remember it like I could cup it in my hands right now.
They’re reminiscing, talking about life back in the day. Barrio love. Homeboy to homeboy. And there’s rules apparently. 1979, 1975. Guidelines and rituals and a fuckload of the way it should be and was, but isn’t anymore.
Sleepy’s voice pounds down into the platica like a timpani, overcomes the Nortena seeping through the walls.
They’re chuckling, nodding. Big Smokey cracks a smile, and that’s rare. In public that’s a rare occurrence. At home or when it’s just him and me, I see it, and I think oddly my own smile, now, all these years later, has imbued itself with his. Sparse, almost forced. A fissure in the folds of lip and mouth, and what results is that maybe I’ve adopted pieces of him, taken them from what we had and made them utterly my own.
That old vato was called Sleepy, and from the slump of his eyes, you might say that namesake fit him perfectly.
“Remember about the shoes?” that old vato asks. An excitement as smooth as the moon coats his voz. A mezcla of homeboy wisdom and tradicion that only a veterano, experienced in the ways of el barrio, can propound.
See, there were rules to what we did. We lived by these rules, and I had no fucking clue, up until that nite at the Lion’s Den listening to Smokey and Sleepy, of exactly why I couldn’t wipe down and shine my vato’s Stacy’s or his Florsheim’s, and why I always cleaned the tennis but not the fine lines of the wingtips and other shoes.
And how I must always stand at the edge of the bar so my vato could stand facing the door and between me and the rest of the floor. How my drink should rest directly behind and to the right of his. In the shadow of it, in its grasp.
Everyday clothes I could iron, but the fancy shit, the trajes and slacks and corbatas, shit, I wouldn’t touch those. I remember Smokey taking such pride and such care in pressing these things. I remember him humming, KRLA his accompaniment. I remember the starch. I remember the softness of a pano, silky, like the head of verga on the tip of your tongue once the skin has retracted.
I concluded that it was only out of respeto, reverence for the dead, that he never allowed me to talk down or inquire unnecessarily about his past love, an old veterano from Boyle Heights who’d succumbed to SIDA and of whom I knew very little except that Smokey, my vato, loved this man profoundly and that his death had devastated him. This understood silence, too, was a rule. One foto of this handsome man named ----- rose out of the simple altar to la Virgen de Guadalupe, which Smokey maintained devotedly in his small Lorena Street apartment. A single vela held perpetual vigil over his old love, and only now that my one and only has passed on do I truly comprehend the intricacies and potency of this devotion.
I listened, then, that wondrous nite at the Lion’s Den in Santa Ana. I saw life in eyes I had grown to love so deeply, a soft flicker of the pupil that soon kindled into what I, now, harbor in the harrowed grip of my own cora.
And that I recall was the nite we ran out of spit, and instead of lube, my vato busted out with the 3 Flores. Old school style. Shit, like that, it was magic. Big Smokey on my back, the two of us continuing el tradicion, and the colchones musing their barrio symphonies.
The Vato Whom Smokey Loved Before Me 
I’ve tried to reconstruct the photograph. I can’t.
And I force myself to remember his jaw, his upturned chin that beamed the bluest resistencia and that serio-ass grin. His pompadour that shined as brilliant as a velvety Los Angeles midnight, a consummate replica of how my own vato styled his dome. And, of course, I remember the flag, blue as my baby’s heart and creased immaculately.
All these years after the fact, I contemplate this vato who impacted the way my one and only could love me, and I’m grateful for what he taught him and passed onto him all those years before I came along. And I am curious like fuck.
I have questions, chingos. And no one to answer them. Who mourns this vato? Who tends his grave? Who tells his stories and honors him now that Big Smokey’s gone? And I wonder, then, if this will happen to me when I finally pass on to el cielo. I wonder if my own ponder how Big Smokey molded me into the man I am, how I love, what I fear and forbid and follow. Who will honor Big Smokey once I’m gone? Will anyone honor me? I think of this shit sometimes as I’m planchando, creasing up a playera or stiffening these panos I, like my one and only, have devoted myself to making.