Green Cat Liquors Series: Part II

I could tell it was morning.  The smell of burnt egg lingered like the smell of stale alcohol from the alley.  No matter how much oil Tita Carmen poured, the eggs always stuck to the pan.  Los pinches sartenes as she called them, were worn like the bottoms of our shoes or the look on my mom’s face after a long day’s work.  Besides the smell of the eggs, there was nothing else to distinguish day from night.  The traffic outside our window seemed too busy to notice us.  Sirens and gunshots warned us of a world we were too little to understand.

Waiting was the only eventful aspect of our lives – waiting for anything to remind us that we were still part of this world.  Tio Chiquis, Tita’s son, called her to let her know he was stopping by on his way home to Tijuana.  She didn’t get the opportunity to see him often.  He was always working or grandma was always busy taking care of us.  A few moments later, heard a loud muffled voice coming from outside.  There were cop cars everywhere like pieces of paper scattered in no particular direction.  There was a woman with a shot-gun holding the apartment complex hostage, and cops, who seemed to be bumping into each other like squirming blue ants.

Tita paced back and forth from the kitchen window to the living room, more concerned about missing her opportunity to see my uncle than the threatening woman standing outside our door with the shot-gun.  Pinche vieja, no mas que se vaya’a ir mi hijo sin verlo y no se la va’acabar con migo.  The window in our kitchen slid up to open and hung twenty-four inches from the floor.  In a moment of desperation, Tita climbed out of the window, and the story goes she grabbed the woman in a nelson hold, slipping both of her arms underneath the woman’s armpits and locking her hands behind the woman’s neck.  The cops were able to handcuff the woman before my uncle arrived.

This was the woman who nurtured and protected me for 36 years of my life; who helped me raise my daughter, until the day her (Tita’s) body conceded to cancer.

I Wanted to Cry but Instead I Vomited

The day my brother died was the first time I had faced death.  I always thought that you died when you were old, but my brother was 15.  My brother and I were very close; he was my best friend at the time. He had an old soul and he understood things that were beyond our age and experiences.  There was something more than siblinghood that connected us, something connected to the soul of the world.

My grandmother, daughter and I were coming from Tijuana, Mexico.  It was close to midnight because we had been held longer than expected at the San Ysidro border crossing.  As I put my signal to turn into our parking lot, I noticed the yellow crime scene tape blocking the entrance to the adjacent parking lot.  The apartment complex was on a hill, so the parking lots were staggered, each with its own entrance.

I had a presentiment, and without pause, I continued to drive into the parking lot, which geared to the right toward the front of the complex, losing sight of the yellow tape.  I could feel thumping in my chest, and I just wanted to get my grandmother and daughter safely into the apartment.  I tried not to let the wariness show on my face.  I went into my brothers’ bedroom to check on them, and only Francisco was there asleep.  I lied to my grandmother and told her they were all there.

I could feel the staircase trembling with every hard step I took as I rushed toward the yellow tape.  I could hear my breath, loud like when you tightly shut your ears, and the inner sounds become pulsating bass.  As I turned the corner, I saw an ambulance, in silence, waiting.  The doors to the back were open, and the gurney was empty.  No paramedics in sight. A man in a suit approached me and asked me if I needed something.  I told him Alex and David, were my brothers.  I needed to know they were okay.  He looked at me the way my French teacher looked at me when I told her I was pregnant, and I wouldn’t be able to take part in the exchange program.  Then he looked over his shoulder, scanning for an officer, and yelled, “This is Alex’s sister.”

I didn’t know that I knew then.  But my heart knew something was really wrong.   I stood there like a casualty and began to notice 1, 2, 3, 4 cop cars parked dispersedly.  The blue and red lights whirling in my head like a throbbing dizziness.  I kept pleading, “Can you please tell me what happened to my brother Alex?”  Then I saw the paramedics stroll by and get into the ambulance.  Where was my brother? Finally I broke through the yellow tape, and started running toward one of the officers.  And then as if to numb my heart forever, the officer blurted out like a million pieces of sharp, jagged glass, “Your brother has been shot, and they are doing all they can to save him.”

Why were the paramedics in the ambulance?  An unfamiliar quiet had constricted the scene; a quiet that smelled of dry grass.  Then I remembered my grandmother back in the apartment, and I knew I had to go back, because if I didn’t, she’d know something was wrong.  What would I say to her?  Could I pretend? I had to go back and lie to her, so that I could have more time for my brother to be saved.

The second time I made my way to the yellow tape, my feet dragged like rusted anchors in a mud pool.  The ambulance’s eyes avoided me the way a child avoids the dark.  I saw the ambulance pull away, empty, driving into the distance until it was swallowed by the night sky.    I wanted to cry, but instead I vomited.  The taste of bile and spoiled bitterness scraped my throat and silenced my weep.

My brothers were under the foster care of my grandmother, but I knew the news of Alex’ death would devastate her even kill her.  I pleaded the officer not tell my grandmother anything until I could get my mother and the man I had come to see as my dad to the scene.  My brother David was being held in the apartment where my brother had been killed, he had witnessed it.   I went back to my apartment and pretended that one of the neighbors had experienced a medical emergency.  I calmly went into the room I shared with my grandmother and daughter, picked up the phone, and began to dial numbers to locate my mom, my grandmother was in the kitchen.

What I remember next is standing where the two walls of the apartment building met, shielding my body as if to separate myself from the intrusive pain.  Like a child on the look out for approaching danger, I peaked my head and saw my brother being carried in a black body bag down the stairs through the parking lot.  I could hear my mother’s wailing the way a mother wolf howls at the winter moon to understand her place in the universe.

My brother Alex was shot with a 22-caliber gun through the heart as he was sitting on a friend’s couch in an apartment located just a few feet behind ours.  His friend Roach had been role-playing with the gun and unintentionally shot my brother.

The following is my brother’s brief account of that day:

We had just received our checks for our work through Hire-A-Youth.  Alex worked as a janitor assistant at Smythe Elementary School. We were hanging out with Chris [who lived in the same apartment complex] and had asked his brother to go buy us some beer.  We had been drinking and chillin’.  Then some fools from the Del Sol apartment complex were starting some trouble.  We all got in a car, including Alex’s friend, Roach, and of course stupid, we went to look for them.  Roach had the 22-caliber.  We didn’t find the guys and we ended shooting all the bullets as we were driving around.  When we got back to Chris’s apartment, Alex called a girl he had been seeing.  So Alex was hanging out with his girl in the living room, and David was playing video games with Chris in the bedroom.  I felt like a third wheel, and was tipsy from the beer, so I decided to go back to our apartment to sleep.  I figured all the bullets from the gun had been emptied and there was no need for me to stick around.  Then I remember my mom waking me up and asking me where Alex was.

I don’t know all the events that lead to my brother’s death.  And I want to respect the healing process of those who were deeply affected by his death.  Maybe one day they will choose to tell their story; today I can only tell you mine.

For so long I held on to a tormenting guilt the way the winter skies hold on to pewter-heavy clouds. The weeks leading to my brother’s death, I had begun to notice he was engaging in some risky behavior such as putting alcohol in plastic cups and drinking it at school.  He had begun to work part-time under the Hire-A-Youth project, and I thought this would allow him to become a more responsible young man.  Because we were so close, I used to fulfill a greater part of his desires – from giving him rides to his girl-friends’ houses to picking up his dry cleaned pants to taking him in the middle of the night to buy a carne asada burrito with agua de Jamaica.  He was a charmer and it was hard to say no to him.  It was during this time that I decided that I would no longer give him so many rides, and he would have to purchase a bus pass to learn to get around on his own.  My hope was that he would begin to develop a more self-sufficient attitude, but instead we became distant.  I couldn’t forgive myself.  Once again I had found another justification for my worthlessness.

I did not go to my brother’s wake; I was barely present at his funeral.  Love is a fire, but that day my heart turned into a hardened molten rock.  I was angry at my mom for the times she had kicked my brother out of her bed so some man could sleep in it, I was angry at myself for having abandoned my brother when he most needed me, I was angry at my uncle for the times he had beaten my brother with a closed fist or the times he had lifted my brother off the ground from his ears, I was angry that my brother had been in NA 15 (New Alternatives 15), a temporary social services placement for children, I was angry that he was [we were] never given the chance of a normal childhood!

If I had not stopped giving him rides.  If I had not gone to Tijuana with my grandmother that day.  If our transfer request had been approved by Housing Commission a few weeks earlier (It was approved three weeks after Alex’s death).  If he had stayed in NA-15.  If my mother hadn’t had five children. If our lives had been more stable.  If, If, If, If. . .

My brother died 19 years ago, and I couldn’t understand why.  For many it is difficult to justify a tragedy, especially when they can’t find meaning to it.  Meaning is something you give not something you find.  Making sense of tragedy is up to us.  Through my daughter’s birth I found the power and courage to create a vision for my life.   My brother’s death broke my heart [open], so that I could ultimately understand who I was meant to be.  There was so much pain and anger in our lives, and my brother took it all in.  His death transformed his life and it transformed ours.  I stopped reproaching; I stopped accusing.  Like me, everyone had his or her own journey to heal and forgive, and I had two choices: I either succumbed to the anger and guilt, or I took a chance to redefine my life and offer my daughter and me a more love-filled existence.

This is Alex gently immersing Carmen in the pool.  From the moment she was born, he took great care to support me.  If she was ever restless or agitated, even if it was in the middle of the night, he would immediately wake up and come see what was wrong with her.  And he would sit up with me until I could get her back to bed. There were times only he could get her to go back to sleep.

My Prom. A few weeks after I gave birth to Carmen. Four months before Alex's death.

Green Cat Liquors Series – Part I

I could smell the stench from the stale alcohol diluted with dreams pissed away by shattered hopes like the broken malt liquor bottles in the alley that separated our apartment complex from the Green Cat Liquors store, standing on one of the Four Corners of Death.  In the background, I could hear the screeching and honking of cars sometimes competing against the noise of booming music.  The muddy brown apartments stood there drunken with screams and reproaches of could be’s and could’ve been’s.  Mamá and I had just returned from the Laundromat.  I was standing next to her as she opened the trunk of her car to grab the basket of clothes.  A shadow approached her from behind pointing a gun at her.  He demanded she give him her purse.  I could see the look of resistance in Mamá’s eyes, the same look I had seen in my grandmother when she was confronted with abuse and injustice.  Mamá held her purse tightly like the five-dollar bill that got us through the end of the month.  When she refused to let go, he elevated the gun, pointing it right at her forehead, and cocked it making the sound of a ticking clock. I knew that if she didn’t release the purse, he might hurt her.  I stepped in between him and mamá and facing him, his eyes, I matter-of-factly said, “Dale la bolsa mamá.”  The three of us stood there suspended in time, crossing paths like the cracks on the oil-stained pavement.  She had no choice but to let go.  As he yanked mamá’s purse and began to run, she gave it one last tug.  I grabbed her arm as if to remind her that it was okay to let go.  We stood there in silence listening to the rattling nickels and pennies that had escaped from the purse.

At the time of the incident, there was not a black gate surrounding the perimeter of the apartment complex.