When I was ten years old, I stole my grandfather Louie’s car, a white Dodge Polara Sedan with a push button transmission. My parents were fighting (they were always fighting), so they once again farmed me out to my grandparents. It was summer time and I was miles away from home and from my friends. There were no other kids my age on my grandparent’s block. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone outside of their houses. During the day, I tossed a Frisbee back and forth across the backyard, chasing it, picking it up and then tossing it again until I wore myself out. At night I slept in their screen-enclosed den on an old army cot with a serape as my blanket. I shared the space with a deep freezer that rumbled loudly in two-minute intervals, an assortment of round vinyl ottomans and a myna bird named Pretty Boy.
My grandmother, Olga, was responsible for Pretty Boy’s limited vocabulary. She spent hours standing in front of his cage, coaching him. She’d say to him, “Say Hello, Olga… Say Hello, Olga … Say Hi, Louie … Say Hi Louie … Say My Name is Pretty Boy.” Since Myna birds mimic exactly what they hear, Olga inadvertently taught him to repeat her instructional tone. So Pretty Boy learned to say, “Say Hello, Olga,” “Say Hi, Louie,” and “Say my name is Pretty Boy.” His crowning achievement was occasionally proclaiming proudly, “Say my name is Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty-Boy!” In the evening Olga would cover Pretty Boy’s cage with a faded yellow towel. She’d say goodnight to him, and then to me, and shut out the lights. When we were alone in the dark, Pretty Boy would make a low guttural sound: “Grrrrrr.” A mumble of words trapped in his beak. In the middle of the night, long after I’d fallen asleep, he’d suddenly awaken and start his repetitious boasts, “Say my name is Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty-Boy!” Somewhere in my second week with Olga, Louie, and Pretty Boy, locked in the den of a powerless childhood, I stood up from my sleep. I made my way to the coffee table in the living room, where I knew that inside the covered candy dish of green Depression Glass sat the keys to the gleaming white Polara, my Grandfather’s almost-new car.
I stepped carefully, not making a sound as I opened the front door to leave. Silence is your most valuable super-power when you’re young. Pretty Boy gurgled low and menacingly in the background. I hoped he wouldn’t blow my cover. I closed the front door behind me with a barely audible click, and walked across the lawn to the driveway. When I reached the Dodge, I pushed the key into the lock and turned it to the right. I watched the turquoise door button pop straight up. I quietly opened the driver door and closed it behind me. Grandpa Louie sprayed WD-40 on everything that made so much as a squeak. He unknowingly aided in my getaway. I climbed into the front seat and pulled it all the way forward. I’d never driven before, but I’d watched how it was done so closely that I knew I could do it. I released the brake and let the car roll back down the steep driveway in reverse, gliding on to Mariposa Ave. I let the car roll down the street in neutral, the length of four houses, and softly pressed on the brake. I started the engine and pushed the “drive” button. Sitting at the edge of the seat, I gave it some gas and lurched forward to Imperial Highway and turned right.
The streets were all but deserted. I was careful to stop for all the traffic lights and I kept a close eye on the rear-view mirror. As I waited at the red light on Prairie Avenue, a Hawthorne Police car raced by, no lights, no siren. I thought about how my grandfather had been in the LAPD Reserves. How he would let me wear his hat and badge. I thought about how I should probably turn the car around and go back. But I didn’t want to go back. So I kept going. When the highway ended, I had reached the ocean in El Segundo, about ten miles from where I had started. I pulled the Dodge into the parking lot at Dockweiler Beach, bringing it to a stop, pressing the “Park” button and turning off the ignition. And for the first time in what felt like hours, I exhaled. The sky was turning that purplish kind of blue, like it does before the sun is about to arrive, or just before it leaves us. I got out of the car and stared at the water just beyond the sand. The air smelled of salt and oil, and it was cold and I was without a jacket. I laid down on top of the hood of the Dodge, feeling the warmth from the engine and looking up into before-daybreak sky. The first plane of the day was taking off from LAX, and I watched it climb above the ocean like a bird, uncaged and free.
Dennis Hernandez's live birth was recorded in Los Angeles, California. Abandoned by his young mother in the early months of his life, he was sold to a working class family for the price of a Greyhound Ticket and a promise of secrecy. Restlessness in his DNA, he lives half his life in coffee shops, mid-rate efficiency suites and rental cars. He remembers things, sometimes correctly. He has written some of these things down.