I’m not what you’d normally call a morning person. I’m barely an afternoon person, but here I am, up with the fog. The sun is barely making an appearance, but it’s still warm enough for shorts and a hoodie. It’s just me, a slow-ass jogger who I swear hasn’t moved in ten minutes, and an older man sitting on the other bench closer to the lake.
The older man is wearing a trench coat, like the kind college students wear before they go streaking though the library during finals week. Which is exactly what me and my freshman roommate Alan Ziedler did, except underneath our coats we were wore matching bright red Speedos. Across the front, Alan’s swimsuit read “You.” Mine read “Wish.” Young men — we are a humble species.
Freshman year – that was almost seven years ago. It’s been three years since I graduated, one since I moved out here, and six weeks since I started sneaking out of bed in the morning to come here. I kiss my girlfriend on the left cheek before I leave, and on the right one when I come back in. I’m sure she knows, but as long as I’m back before breakfast, she pretends not to notice.
Today is the morning of my 25th birthday. Before I go out with my girlfriend and the small cast of friends I have out here to celebrate or mourn, I sit. On this old, wooden bench at the corner of Lakeshore and Foothill, looking out at Lake Merritt in all its majestic, odorous glory.
Most days, it’s quiet. Which is why I come. Most of my life is noise – bosses, students, BART tracks, street addicts, TV addicts, the voices in my head the loudest of them all. As a principle, I don’t mind volume. In my poetry classes, I teach Piñero more than Thoreau. Scatter my ashes through the city, but it’s true: the forest is nice every now and then. Like the lake.
Originally a pine-tree green, the bench I’m sitting on has faded to a deep brown bark. Turning around, I see that right behind where I was sitting, someone had scratched several words into the wood. Surprised I hadn’t seen it before. Maybe I was busy trying to avoid Mr. Trenchcoat, who I notice is now watching me closely. As much to avert his eyes as my own curiosity, I read the words on the bench:
I got you.
I came here two days ago, and I don’t remember this memorial being here. Who’s Josue? I wonder how old he was, and what did he do for his last birthday. And what happened to make it his last.
But it’s that second line that really gets me. I got you. What the fuck does that mean? Was it written by a friend, who promised to take care of Josue’s family? Or that the friend will get back at the killers? Or worst, that whoever wrote it was the killer themself, like “Haha, I got you, bitch.” I look closer at the lettering, but can’t decipher any emotion one way or another in the wood.
‘Josue.’ I remember the first time I heard that name. When I started taking Spanish in seventh grade, my teacher Mr. House (or as we called him, Señor Casa) called me Josue. I liked it. It sounded more exciting than ‘Josh,’ more real than ‘Yehoshua.’ I was learning Hebrew at the same time for my Bar Mitzvah, but this was America. Talking shit with the Salvadorans down the block was more important than mastering my Torah portion.
But accents have always come with a price. Every “ñ” is a bullet hole for a norteño caught in the wrong neighborhood, the wrong country. Assimilation has its own price, but at least you live long enough to calculate the cost. Right?
I turn around again. The lake and then downtown sit in front of me like the rest of life, glimmering with possibility. Behind me is East Oakland, Church’s Chicken, Josue’s grave. I sit on the wood bench, the meeting place of life and death. The fog is beginning to lift. I can see San Francisco in the distance, taunting me with her skyscrapers that I need to put food on the table.
As I stand up to leave, the old man in the trench coat walks towards me. Picking up my pace, I nod an uncertain Morning… in his direction and try to keep moving.
“Hey, do you want to see something?” he asks me quietly without waiting for an answer. “I want to show you something.”
He starts to untie his coat. Scared he’s going to show me the one thing I don’t want to see, I try to walk away. “No, I’m cool, I’m cool…”
“Wait a sec, son” he says, grabbing my arm. “I don’t have no guns or nothing. I just want to show you this.”
He undoes his coat, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I see he is fully clothed. He’s wearing a nice suit in fact, not old but a classic vintage. From his inside pocket, he pulls out a Swiss army knife.
“It was my son’s,” he says, pulling out the corkscrew and twirling the red knife. “He’d be about your age. He wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He would have made it too, until…” his voice trails off, looking at the etching on the bench where I’d been sitting.
“I saw you looking at it earlier,” he continues after taking a breath. “You look like a good kid — I know you’re not a kid, but at my age, I see everyone under 30 as young.
“I saw you looking at his name on the bench. I wanted to tell you his full name: Josue Luis de los Reyes. Now you know. So when you come back here the next time, and you see where it says, ‘I got you,’ that means you too. You carry him forward. Can you do that for me?”
He looks at me like he sees something I don’t, and I try to see it for myself. His eyes are strong and brown like an oak tree. Or a coffin. “Yeah, I can do that,” I say.
It’s as honest as I can be. I’m not sure what he really wants me to do, and I don’t think he knows either, but both of us are glad to have agreed on a plan for now.
“Thank you,” he says, shaking my hand with the love and power that only an older man can. “Hope to see you again sometime. Be safe, son.”
He puts the knife back in his pocket, ties up his coat, and walks away along the lake. I take a breath and think about the wish I’ll be making later in the day. Seeing the sun now full and rising quickly over the hills, I walk home to let my girlfriend wake me up and wish me a happy birthday.