Character: Build It Here
The Running Boy
by George Luna
Morning traffic on the I-15 was brisk. I hated driving to L.A. I was already running late on a ‘leather run’ to Western Saddlery in Arcadia. I was the saddle maker at San Luis Rey Downs, a training center for race horses in East San Diego County.
The sky over Murietta was completely lit and it was only a matter of minutes before the sun would start peeking over the hills. 6:15 a.m. is early enough, but late by my standards.
Beyond one of the overpasses, I looked to the shoulder, noticed a shape, running in the direction of traffic. It was a boy running as fast as he could.
Who was he running from? I eased over to the slow lane in time to pull off onto the shoulder and stopped a hundred yards in front of him. I opened the passenger side door. He jumped in. I beat a hasty retreat onto the freeway. He smelt of sage and sweat. I turned to get a look at him: Latino, mid to late teens, dressed like a field hand, probably undocumented. I spoke to him in Spanish, “Where are you going?”
“Los Angeles,” he replied, catching his breath.
“Were you planning to run all the way?” I had to check the note of sarcasm in my voice.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
I heard raw panic. He was scared and a little mistrusting of me. His response didn’t answer my question so much as it was telling me he didn’t know what else to do, but run.
I left him alone and continued to drive. He settled in and after an appropriate time I asked, “Why were you running down the freeway?”
He gave me that 'you’re-never-going-to-believe-this look'.
“We were supposed to get a ride to L.A. this morning from a friend. We got jobs waiting for us in the Pennsylvania mushroom caves and the people taking us are leaving this afternoon. We were going to meet up with my brother who works with these people and all leave together. Well… last night around ten, ‘la migra’ raided the house. I got away and hid in the weeds out back.”
Unbeknownst to him, I had already heard about the raid and figured that everyone had been apprehended.
The boy continued his story of how he escaped with the clothes on his back and the address of where his brother worked tucked in his pocket.
“I didn’t know what else to do. I hid in the field all night hoping someone would come to rescue me. The sun started to rise. I started to run.”
He stopped talking. I looked over and saw his glistening eyes. I left him alone.
“Let me see the address where your brother works,” I said finally. He reached in his pocket. My heart sank, “Bell Flower!”
I gave the piece of paper back to him. ‘Ah shit!’ I said to myself, mulling the thing over. I felt put upon.
“Tell you what, I got to stop in Arcadia, you can help me load this truck with supplies and I’ll drive you to your brother. The kid brightened considerably. I darkened.
At Western Saddlery we proceeded to load the truck. John and Margaret, part owners, ran the place. It was a family operated concern. Margaret, friendly as ever, smiled at the boy as he walked to and fro loading.
“Who’s this?” she asked. I looked at her and shrugged. John walked over to us as I started to recant the morning’s lark.
“…didn’t know what else to do with him. I couldn’t just leave him there.”
The boy kept his head down evading eye contact until all the supplies were loaded. I called to him, he walked slowly up to me. John asked him his waist size. “Veinte-ocho,” he responded almost inaudibly. John walked over to the wall that had every size of Wrangler jeans imaginable. He pulled out two pair of 28x30s.
Meantime Margaret had gone to the till, put a twenty dollar bill in a small paper bag. She then passed the bag amongst their employees, who by now had heard the story of the ‘running boy’. Everyone participated. John and Margaret walked up to the boy and handed him the pants and the bag of money. He was speechless. He shook John’s hand and gave Margaret a peck on the cheek.
Driving on the 605, I reassured him, “We should be there shortly, let me see the address again.” I tried to avoid his gaze. I hate ‘warm-and-fuzzy’ moments, and I wasn’t getting emotionally invested any more than I was already, after all I’d seen dozens of ‘muchachos’ like him, all with their tragic smiles and horrible circumstances. No thank you.
I dropped him off at the factory where his brother worked. We lucked-out; it was break time. He spotted his brother from a group of oil-stained workers. He hollered and his brother came running to the chain-link fence that separated us.
I turned away, started to walk back to the truck. The boy stopped me, he shook my hand, “Who are you, and who was the old couple at the store?”
I looked into his eyes, and surrendered a smile, “People, just people.”
Ex-jockey, George Luna, finds redemption in the most unlikely places. When not out stumbling into stories as the reluctant protagonist, George continues his search for redemption at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, California, where he directs a literacy program for racetrack employees.