Lockdown: walking back the cat
Many years ago, when I was a new writer, I needed to have the final scene clear in my mind, if not actually on paper: a goal to work toward, even if the path itself wasn’t immediately visible. But about seven books in, I somehow forgot to choose my ending before I began to write. And although I got into a panic when I realized it, the back of my mind just patted me on the hand and said it would be fine. And it was.
That’s why I knew Lockdown was a book even though it began as stories. From the outside, the creation of Lockdown looks like chaos: six short stories that for some reason their author decided to glue together into a novel.
But that’s the reverse of the process. Do you know the term “walking back the cat”? It’s an Intelligence reference to finding the cause-and-effect pattern in a series of apparently random events. Yes, you have a school lockdown: in this novel, you know that from the early pages. But how does it happen? What are the links, invisible but steely, that tie the alarm clock of principal Linda McDonald (see the last post) to the can of spray paint carried by one of her students…
2:45 am, Career Day
Chaco put his head around the dark corner of A Wing, filled with . . . what was the word? Foreboding. Yeah, so the janitor made him nervous. Gave Chaco misgivings.
Scared the shit out of him.
Far as Chaco knew, Tío wasn’t nobody’s uncle, wasn’t even from Mexico like everybody Chaco knew. Sure, he talked Spanish, but his accent was, like, exotic—from somewhere else. Nicaragua, maybe? El Salvador? Tío was just the limpiador, walking up and down in his dirt-colored uniform and cleaning the floors. Big thrill for the old guy was the day he got to shut off the water in the girl’s baño, stop it running all over the floor. Real hero, man.
Maybe the reason Tío made him nervous was cause the dude was so pinche quiet. Tío talked quiet, he didn’t turn on a radio the minute the bell rang—even his cart with all the mops and brooms, the same one the last janitor used, didn’t rattle and squeak so much. And, like, the other day when one of the substitutes shouted some question down the breezeway at him? Tío didn’t just shout back an answer. Instead, he put away his broom and walked over, all polite, to see what the guy wanted.
Funny thing was, the teacher looked a little . . . Not embarrassed. More like he thought maybe Tío coming at him so quiet (like Angel) meant the old guy had a knife. Edgy, maybe? Wanting to edge away?
Anyway, yeah, Chaco felt a little edgy tonight himself, crouching in back of A Wing, away from the all-night floods, a can of spray paint in his hand. He really, really didn’t want to turn around and find Tío there, looking at him.
Which was stupid. Or—what was that word he’d found the other day?—ludicrous. (Chaco had a private collection of perfect words—words he’d never, ever use out loud.) Tío didn’t spend the night at school, and no way could he just guess who’d done a tag. Chaco knew all about crime labs and forensic science and stuff, so he was wearing a set of his uncle’s overalls he’d fished out of the trash, and his most beat-up pair of shoes, and he’d dump it all on his way home. He’d take a shower in the morning so he wouldn’t smell like paint. How would Tío know?
Besides, there wasn’t really much choice. He was almost thirteen—and, he was family to Taco Alvarez.
So now, at near to three in the morning, Chaco the Tagger crept down the A Wing breezeway, the old rubber on his shoes making a kissing sound against the smooth concrete. Nothing moved, no cars went by. Under the main breezeway, into the entrance arch— and there it was, all shiny and new-looking, hundreds of little chips and tiles with pictures of school things and people on them. He hesitated, just a little, ’cause really, it was kind of dope. Intricate, like. And a man didn’t tag someone else’s art unless it was enemy action. But this was a school, and in the end he had to prove himself to Taco (and Angel) and yeah, to Sofia Rivas. Though she’d probably just give him one of her looks, all arrogant, or maybe condescending.
Chaco’s arm went up to shake the can, making the little ball inside ting back and forth five, six times. He chose his spot with care, right there on the face of the school secretary for his first letter, and—
And as if the pressure of his finger had triggered a lot more than paint, the universe exploded into a blinding glare of flood-light, outlining every tile, giving texture to the grout, showing the cheerful expressions on a crowd of pieced-together figures.
The can bounced and skittered across the walkway as Chaco fled into the night.