The BLUEBIRD exuded luck. It was the only liquor store in Hawthorne with all the letters lit up, its neon sign announcing fortune. Seemed like the only hood spot in the world that sold winning lotto tickets, and despite its small size, the store provided constant gifts. Cardboard placards covered the entire interior—the walls, the ceiling, and some parts of the windowpane—with the name, date, and amount won penned in. These cardboard victories seduced the hopeful saps that happened to stop by the Bluebird or hear about it on the local news. Even folks from swanky places like Malibu and Playa del Ray came down just to buy tickets, to steal our luck. Outside, a long line of people snaked from the shop’s entrance, and on weekends it wrapped around the building into the parking lot. People smoked cigarettes and leaned against their cars and discussed their golden futures. One receding hairline would speak to another, starting all his sentences with, I dream, I pray, I hope, while a woman in braids rolled her eyes and another woman wearing leopard-print leggings smiled in response. I’d feel it all the time at the Bluebird, the ambitions behind lucky numbers, the prayers rocketed toward the cardboard ceiling of victory, the silly and sensible dreams of Hawthorne’s hopefuls.
Those days, I trudged along Hawthorne’s cracked walks to tape roommate ads to the windows of local laundromats and Chinese restaurants. Mom sent me out every day to plaster Hawthorne in ads. “But don’t do weird places,” she instructed. “I don’t want criminals, Efren.” Thirteen years in this country and she was still suspicious of everything and everybody. If it didn’t resemble her family’s province in the Philippines, the salty shore town of Juan Luna, then it registered as a dangerous enigma, the jagged edge of a threat. My route passed the Bluebird, and once I got within two blocks of the place, I’d hear the steady call of, “Golden scents to match your golden tickets! Smell golden, get golden! Do it now!”
There he was: Leon, the Bluebird’s mouth, its heart. Sunup to sundown, he worked the storefront, peddling hand-blended perfumes and colognes to passersby. Even in heavy rain or a vicious Cali heat wave [End Page 24] you could rely on Leon to be there, a fixture to the Bluebird like the resident drunks. Even though he sold colognes and perfumes instead of bootleg DVDs or grocery-cart corn, we didn’t treat him any better than the other vendors, and instead of the cold-ass indifference we dished out to the freeway-exit rose sellers or gas station winos, Leon received heaping helpings of scorn and suspicion. We’d always thought Leon was full of it, feeding us lines to sell his scents, creating fictions he’d wanted us to stop and smell. That’s what he was: the scent man, the aroma dealer, though folks commonly referred to him as That Nigga Leon, That Motherfucker, That Scheming Fool, and my favorite, Mr. Smell.
“I got that Quorum. Man I even got that Ralph Lauren. That Ralph, though!”
When Leon got started up like that people called him corny, and a few even threatened him. I never threatened him myself, but I certainly cast a blind eye to the intimation. Homedude reeked of mischief, and I didn’t much like that he kicked it out front of the Bluebird, where I got my Hot Cheetos and Coca Cola after school. He was a fast talker, that one, and lies easily flew from his mostly toothless mouth. There was no such thing as lying through his teeth, no front teeth or incisors to contain his lies, and the deceptions strolled out real easy on that red carpet of tongue.
“Top of the line,” Leon said, patting his bag.
“Shut up, fool,” we said—
Well, I’d just walk by.
But he remained there at the Bluebird, doing what he always did, making his way in a city that inventively fissured the new ground you stood upon. When I observed Leon, it seemed his life was surprisingly...