Chavez Ravine, April 1951
Something strange passes across the evening sky above the open hills of Chavez Ravine.
Henry Loya spots it as he sits quietly, perched on a water tank, and watches as it disappears behind a cloud. Moments later, wrapped in a dazzling golden glow, a woman in a blue cloak descends. Henry tumbles off the tank and struggles to his knees.
“La Virgen,” he says, bowing his head before the Virgin of Guadalupe. Then he makes the sign of the cross, stunned by the unfairness of the visitation. It’s his wife, Esther, who has faithfully built an altar to La Virgen year after year.
A trumpet sounds and La Virgen splits open, as if a great hand is pulling down an invisible zipper. The brown mother of Jesus vanishes and out steps a being of great magnificence. Tall, nearly seven feet, with skin the color of a madrone tree at sunset.
“Do not be afraid,” it says, leaping from nothingness to the ground.
Somehow, Henry rises to his feet. He’s unable to speak.
“You are safe with me, señor Loya. My name is too complex for your language, so please, call me Tall One. Time is short and we have important matters to discuss.”
Tall One hops on the water tank, folds into a sitting position, and pats the space next to him. He holds out a somewhat furry hand with extra digits and hauls up Henry, who is too astonished to resist.
“Now we may speak,” he says. His voice is like a hammy actor who speaks a bit too loudly and clearly to be natural.
Henry shivers, even though the night is warm. Shock, he supposes. “What do you want to talk about?”
“The future,” says Tall One. “I am sorry to have disturbed your contemplations. Especially after the night you have had.”
Henry’s mouth falls open. When he finally remembers to close it, he can only stutter. “You know where I was?”
Tall One’s long face is arranged in a most confusing way, yet his mannerisms are oddly familiar. He nods. “Yes. At a meeting about the evictions. I am very impressed by the role you are taking. It’s very brave to speak up in front of all those angry humans.”
“I really don’t want to go to those meetings anymore,” Henry says, pulling out a cigarette. Before he lights it, he offers one to his companion.
“I’m not sure what that is, so I believe I will decline,” Tall One says with a wave of his large hand. “But your participation is necessary if your side is to stop the powerful forces who want you to leave.”
Henry shrugs. He’s heard this before, and he’s no longer buying it. “It’s too late. Those idiots with the California Housing Authority already made up their minds this place is nothing but a slum, and a few angry Mexicans aren’t going to change that. And the meetings are getting too rowdy for me. Besides…” Henry’s voice trails off. Is he crazy? Having some sort of fit?
Tall One launches himself off the water tank and lands on the weed shot ground with a thud. He wrinkles his nose at the smoke drifting toward him from Henry’s cigarette. “It seems I have arrived at just the right time. I must admit, I’m a little surprised you have not asked why I am here.”
Henry takes a long drag of his cigarette. His hand is trembling, he notices. “Well, I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone like you, señor Tall One. Disguised as La Virgen of all things.”
Tall One gasps. “Did we make a mistake? Our culture advisor assured us that The Virgin of Guadalupe would be the perfect vehicle for my arrival. I hate giving offense and for that I apologize. Would this have been better?”
Suddenly, Henry is staring at El Santo Nino de Atocha. Whenever Henry says a prayer, it’s to this sweet-faced Christ child wearing sandals, and a red plumed hat. And then Tall One pops out like a blasphemous hat trick, causing Henry to startle so violently that he feels his head snap back. Tall One is watching him with a pleased, expectant look on his strange face.
“No,” Henry says, the cigarette falling from his fingers. “That is not better.” He grinds the cigarette under his shoe and rubs the side of his face. His thoughts are bouncing around in his head and he’s having trouble staying focused.
What passes for eyebrows on Tall One’s face creep together like two caterpillars. “I can’t believe our esteemed expert could be so wrong. Well then, how about this?”
This time, Henry is prepared for a startling transformation, but when it happens, he gives a little scream that echoes across the canyon.
What stands before him is the terror of his childhood, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, flames shooting up around her feet. Beneath her serene presence, the souls banished to Purgatory writhe in agony, begging for forgiveness. His grandmother kept him in line by threatening him with those licking flames.
“Stop!” Henry cries.
When he finally opens his eyes, Tall One is scratching at the fur on the back of his hand and studying him closely. “I believe I have frightened you, señor Loya.”
“We’re not used to that sort of thing around here,” Henry says faintly. “And you? Where are you from?”
Tall One raises himself to his full height, which is impressive, and points at the darkness above. “I am from another planet, señor Loya, as you may have guessed. It has taken me many years to arrive exactly here. It has been an arduous journey and I expect by the time I finally return, my loved ones will be old and most possibly dead.”
Henry has never heard of anything so sad. He clears his throat. “So why would you come here? I don’t understand.”
“To make a deal with you, señor Loya. About this place that you call Chavez Ravine.”
Henry’s eyes travel down the steep canyon, past the outline of trees to the neighborhood of Palo Verde below, where no doubt his wife is wondering where he is. “Make a deal with me? I don’t own Chavez Ravine. And even if I did, the city says the houses need to come down, so those damned fools can build a housing project. I can’t help you.”
Tall One slowly walks over to where Henry stands and places an enormous hand on top of his head. It’s a strange gesture, but it has an immediate and soothing effect, as if he’d just finished a glass of warm milk. “You are the right man. Of that I can assure you. But go home, señor Loya, and get some rest. I believe I have overtaxed your sensitive nervous system. We shall talk again tomorrow.” And with that, the majestic and mysterious creature that is Tall One rises into the air and disappears into a small dark ship that comes to meet him.
Henry owns a successful grocery store in Boyle Heights, and his neighbors look up to him. If anyone wants to complain about something or someone, Henry is always ready to lend a sympathetic ear. He listens with his serious dark eyes, head tipped to the side. His advice is short and sensible. Even the pachucos–“no good gangsters,” according to Esther–find their way to his home in La Loma, where they hang over the fence, telling Henry about insults exchanged and simmering territorial disputes.
Since his early thirties, he’s been one of the most respected members of the community. Which is how Henry found himself enmeshed in the struggle over Chavez Ravine.
The barrio activists, a group of fierce ladies determined to preserve their way of life, appeared on his porch to talk about the eviction notice. They returned to discuss their plans to protest. Then they came back again, insisting Henry join their cause. At first, he refused. But he was quickly outmaneuvered. They appealed to his wife.
“Think of the children, Henry,” Esther pleaded. “We own our own home. We have a nice big yard and a vegetable garden. I don’t want to be a renter, all crammed into some apartment. And we won’t be able to buy anything nice. Not with the measly amount the city is offering.”
All true. In the end, Henry relented. At first, he attended the community meetings with some enthusiasm, fueled by collective outrage over the eviction letters.
The city had declared Chavez Ravine, “substandard.”
Never had he felt so insulted. Still, Henry had to admit that he lived in one of the better houses, a solid building with a bathroom and a fresh coat of white paint. Many others were in terrible shape or ramshackle, made of odd and ends, like packing cases and trailers without wheels.
Henry is a logical and reasonable man.
Condemning all the houses is overkill and costly. The solution is simple: force the owners to fix their dilapidated properties to comply with the city’s building and health codes. Henry throws his support behind this argument. It’s such an obvious, practical idea that it fills him with hope.
But those people at the city are stubborn. They will not compromise. Not a cursing man, even Henry has taken to calling them pinche cabrons under his breath. Now he attends planning commission meetings in Los Angeles out of duty, a burden he cannot lay down.
As he dresses for another long day at the store, he wonders what Tall One is offering.
Is the creature with the color of reddish bark even real? As Henry finishes shaving, he’s nearly certain he has imagined the whole thing. Or maybe it was all a strange dream. He can hear voices coming from the kitchen. The boys have already left for school, so it cannot be them.
When he enters the kitchen, he sees a strange man at the table, sipping coffee. He’s a dignified guest and as soon as he speaks, there is no mistaking who it is.
“Good morning, señor Loya,” says Tall one, this time appearing as a priest in black everyday wear.
Henry sags against the doorway for support. He must have a talk with this being from outer space. This preference for religious disguises must stop. It’s unnerving and probably a sin.
Esther waves a dishcloth at him. “Ai, Henry, what’s wrong with you? This is Father Emilio from downtown. He’s heard about what you’re doing to keep those dummies at the city from taking our homes, and he wants to help. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Tall One tugs at the clerical white collar like it’s choking him. Was Tall One wearing clothes last night? He must have. But if he had, Henry cannot remember what they were. Esther pours him a cup of coffee. The fiery liquid is like a jolt to his brain, and he sits up a little straighter and stares at the imposter.
“Yes, that’s very nice,” he says.
This earns him a chancla upside the head. Usually, he has no problem ducking Esther’s sturdy slippers. He’s been dodging chanclas since a small boy, but he’s slow to react, given the shock of finding Tall One sitting in the very heart of his home.
“Señorita,” says Tall One, picking up the slipper and handing it to Henry’s wife with a flourish. “Why don’t we continue our conversation at your store, señor Loya? I am eager to see your enterprise, of which I have heard so much.”
Henry drives Tall One to Boyle Heights. When he arrives, he has no recollection of the journey. Had they spoken? Had Tall One sat in the passenger seat without revealing his true, other worldly self to people going about their day?
When they pull up in front of Loya’s Market, Tall One throws open the door and exclaims, “This is most impressive! I understand you are one of the few of your kind to own such an establishment.”
“My kind?” Henry asks, shoving the keys into the pocket of his flannel pants.
Tall One places both hands on the hood of the car, his priest disguise still intact. “A man of the Mexican descent. This is, in my home world, a victory. I belong to a different yet similar population. What you would call a minority. Suppressed by forces above. In our case, much more above that you can imagine. I don’t mean to confuse you, but that you have property and a business, it fills me with hope. I am talking with the right man after all. Our experts have not failed me on this count.”
“I still don’t understand what you want from me,” says Henry, looking past Tall One at his clerk. Auggie is getting on in years. Henry worries who will replace him when it’s time for him to retire.
“I want to help you,” says Tall One, following him up the steps. “And in return, you will help me and my kind.”
It’s a tense morning, with Tall One hovering at his side. His workers greet the imposter with unquestioning trust. If the long, true specter of Tall One were to reveal himself, he fears for the health of his customers, some of whom are old and would surely fall dead. But by noon, Henry relaxes. Tall One is on his best behavior and even helps Auggie restock the shelves.
As he goes about his day, Henry’s thoughts keep returning to Tall One’s offer of help.
They need help. Badly. Their side is losing. The signs are everywhere. Some people are selling up and others are cracking under the high-pressure tactics of the city’s agents.
By late afternoon, Henry regards Tall One as something of a miracle. Help from above. If not a divine intervention, it will certainly have a far greater power than anything Henry or his fellow objectors can do on their own.
A savior from another planet is what they need to turn things around.
By the end of day, Henry buzzes with renewed hope and hums on the drive all the way back to Chavez Ravine.
Tall One tells Henry his plan as they walk together through a meadow as goats graze in the distance. It’s an isolated place. Even the children are absent at this hour.
Tall One is back to his normal self. Henry is so eager to hear what he has to say that he forgets his companion’s size and disturbing fuzzy limbs.
“Señor Loya, I must admit. There is no one, single plan. We are counting on your guidance to help us choose the best course of action. After all, we are the foreigners here. You are our most esteemed advisor. Isn’t that so?”
“I suppose,” Henry says modestly. He’s not used to such outright flattery.
Tall One looks down from his great height and gives Henry what passes for a smile on uniquely arranged features. “I am confident we can reach a mutually agreeable solution. So, may I present the first option. This, in my opinion, is our best and most viable plan.”
Henry nods, unable to take his eyes off Tall One. “And what is that?” he asks.
“It’s quite simple,” Tall One replies, waving away a swarm of gnats. “There are three neighborhoods that comprise Chavez Ravine. The city needs the entire area for its housing project. We take two of the neighborhoods and render them uninhabitable. Undesirable for development.”
Henry stops mid-stride. “Uninhabitable?”
“Exactly!” Tall One says. “If no one can live there, the city won’t be able to build on it.”
“But where would all the people go who live there now?” asks Henry, voice rising.
“To the third neighborhood, which we would leave untouched, of course,” says Tall One. “It will be more crowded than you’re all used to. But worth the sacrifice. The city will abandon its plans and eventually you can all move back to where you belong.”
“What would you do, exactly, to those two neighborhoods?” Henry scans the surrounding canyons of Palo Verde and Bishop.
“An environmental catastrophe. Very easy to accomplish. In fact, I’ve come prepared with a specially prepared chemical that will alarm your scientists but will eventually dissipate with little long-term effect. You’ll hardly notice it’s there. I promise.”
A heavy silence follows.
“What’s another option?” Henry asks, frowning.
Tall One claps his enormous hands together, smashing a cloud of gnats between them. “This plan is more dramatic, señor Loya, but also effective. There’s a meeting set for the twenty-sixth of April, the year of 1951. All the major players will be there, conveniently in one place. It is easy enough for my ship to pass overhead and destroy the building. There will be no one left to force you out.”
“But my friends and neighbors. They will be there, too,” Henry whispers.
“Now why would that be?” replies Tall One. “You will warn them in advance not to attend.”
Henry can’t imagine a single thing he could say to the fierce ladies defending Chavez Ravine that would keep them from that meeting.
“Any other ideas?” Henry asks, shoulders curling forward.
“One,” Tall One says, nodding. “But if you do not favor option one, it’s unlikely you will have the courage for the third option, as it involves the dissemination of a contagious disease. Really, señor Loya, option one is by far your best choice to save Chavez Ravine.”
“And how would that help you and your planet?” Henry asks, as the sun sets over the downtown skyline.
Tall One looks straight into Henry’s eyes and says, “It will buy us needed time. You and your people will act as a placeholder until my kind can arrive. By my calculation, that will be in three decades. About the time it will take for the poison to degrade making the area once again habitable.”
Henry gazes at Tall One, stunned. He is no savior. He is something else. A being from another planet with dark, layered motives. He is worse. Much worse than the slum clearance agents who’ve pestered the residents of Chavez Ravine.
How could he have been so foolish? How could he have allowed himself to be duped by this trickster with the voice of a hammy actor?
“But why here?” Henry asks. “There are plenty of empty places for you to go. The mountains, the desert, Alaska.”
Tall One holds out his long arms as if to embrace all of Chavez Ravine. “Only this place will do, señor Loya. It is perfect for our needs. Our experts have considered and rejected countless other locations around the universe. The ocean is not far, and we require a body of water. Our home also has hills, such as these. And most conveniently, there are some minerals buried deep in the soil that are useful to us. The geography of this place is unique. It will allow us to build a wall so we can live separately but peacefully with our human neighbors.”
Henry takes several deep breaths. “What happens to all of us when the rest of you get here? I’m not even sure I’ll be alive, but I still want to know.”
“You must find somewhere else to live,” Tall One says easily. “I assure you, this is a generous offer on our part. You and your family and neighbors may live here for most of your lives, which is sadly short. But we take our commitments seriously and we will provide relocation services for the survivors.”
It’s a warm spring night, but a sudden coldness sweeps through Henry’s body. “I’m sorry, Tall One. I don’t think I can accept this offer,” he finally says.
Tall One stares at him for some time. Then he places his large hand on top of Henry’s head. This time, no comfort radiates from this peculiar gesture. “I am the one who is sorry, señor Loya. My advisors warned me that to approach this as a negotiation might lead to confusion, and it seems they were right. There is no choice. We will come. We have decided it.”
With a little bow, Tall One takes several steps backward. Then he breaks up into countless tiny pieces and joins the cloud of gnats.
That night, Henry waits for his wife and boys to go to sleep, then slips out of his house. He heads to the neighborhood of lower Bishop where Ripper Cuevas lives. He’s thankful he’s always treated the man with respect. For he needs his services.
He finds him drinking a beer, sitting on an overturned tub in his scraggly front yard. Bishop’s only streetlight does him no favors. His shadow looms nearly twice his actual size as he lights up a cigarette. Time is short. Henry gets straight to business and explains what he wants. Ripper nods as if it’s nothing unusual. And to the aging pachuco who’s been in and out of prison, it’s probably not.
“No problem, jefe. You must have your reasons. I just ask one thing,” Ripper says, accepting the envelope without bothering to count the money inside.
“What’s that, Ripper?”
“Call me Vincent. That’s my real name. When this is done, I want a job at your store. I’ll do anything, I’m not picky. Deal?”
Henry nods. “Deal,” he says.
It’s a small price to pay. And there’s no telling whether either of them will survive. Not that he’s told Ripper everything. Just enough to get him to say yes.
The two men silently head toward the highest point of La Loma, where Tall One first appeared as La Virgen. Ripper hides beneath a sad specimen of a tree as Henry scrambles onto the water tank. They wait until the radios below go quiet and the full moon hides behind a cloud.
Henry doesn’t know whether he can summon Tall One, like whistling and having a dog come. But he cups his hands around his mouth and shouts, “Tall One! I’d like to speak to you.”
To his surprise, it works. He can hear Ripper gasp from several yards away. This time, instead of a trumpet, there is a drum roll. Cantiflas rolls out of a cloud like a human taquito and drops to earth, landing on his feet.
Tall One has outdone himself. His disguise is none other than Mexico’s most beloved comedian. Henry’s heart sinks at this apparition. He’d warned Ripper, but he didn’t expect this, of all things. But Vincent is a professional and rushes forward, weapon in hand.
“I’m sorry, Cantiflas!” he cries, as he thrusts his knife again and again.
The men stare down at Tall One as he lay on the ground, convulsing. A foul-smelling substance oozes from his long body. Vincent lights two cigarettes and passes one to Henry, who accepts it with shaking fingers.
A small dark ship appears in the night sky.
The now still husk of Tall One is pulled upward by some invisible force. A portal opens and accepts the body of this failed emissary from another planet.
Thirty years later, long after the plans to build the housing project have fallen through, Henry Loya settles down to watch a Dodgers game in the living room of his home in Boyle Heights.
“Traitor,” Esther says as she sets down a bowl of popcorn on the coffee table. Then she huffs to the kitchen where she will sulk for all nine innings.
“It’s not their fault,” Henry calls after her. He’s never held it against the Dodgers that their stadium stands where Chavez Ravine once stood.
Vincent, friend and manager of his second store in Boyle Heights, shows up with a six-pack at the end of the first inning. “Sorry I’m late, jefe,” he says. “Damn traffic.”
They lean forward and stare at the screen. While they enjoy the game, it’s the camera shots of the crowd they eagerly watch. For as long as they can remember, one of them has spotted a man who looks like the Mexican comedian Cantiflas.
“There he is!” Vincent cries after one of the many commercial breaks.
Sometimes, Henry thinks they’re crazy and just imagining things. And then the same thin man with the funny little mustache appears again. And when he does, Henry and Vincent hold hands and say a prayer for their sin that, in the end, could not save Chavez Ravine.
Copyright © 2020 Debra Castaneda