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Selected Essays of Robert Doggett:

Elvis Slept Here

Among The Hang Gliders

Mean Kids

The Headmaster

Writ In Water

Letters and Commentary:

Barron's Letter 7/26/2004

Fiction by Robert Doggett:

Gato

 

Gato

 

Gato

 For Adriana Maestas

 

Carlos always says that Roberto should have been called El Gato instead of Gato because that was the right way to say someone's name, even a cat's, but I usually forget and think of the name we always used. It didn't make any difference to him at all, that's for sure, and he even told me once that leaving off the article was no big deal. "What the diff, little sis," he would say, whether you called the L.V.L.'s "Los Vatos Locos" or "Vatos Locos?" "Another language, dead already. Another time, another place." He was like that. Nothing was ever serious unless he stopped and made it that way.

We were driving to mass, driving past a row of trees, so it was bright and dark, bright and dark as we motored through the shadows. Carmelita was in her car seat, asleep, her head off to the side at a right angle to her spine. How do little babies do that, anyway, sleep in such weird positions? Now Carlos and me have just had Carmelita's little ear pierced, and I'm getting used to all the seriousness that goes with living the straight life. "You choose your life," says Carlos. "Roberto chose to go on the crooked path, and so they took him out. No surprises."

I was probably fourteen when I met Gato. His real name was Roberto Joaquin Salazar, and it was my first real party. "Gee," he said, "fourteen. You too young to be here, hermana mía." It was then he started calling me Little Sister, and the name stuck. Later that night was when some guys tried to get me to smoke crack in one of the back bedrooms, but Gato heard and put a stop to it.

At first I was thinking, "Who is this guy? Who does he think he is?" but it was only later that I saw that the way he came in, very quietly, like a cat, to say to his brothers that I was off-limits was part of who he was. Lots of guys would've made a big deal about protecting me or defending my honor, and, to tell the truth, Carlos is into that. But all Roberto did was say, "No, hermanos," and that was all there was to it. And before he left that night he didn't strut around or act like he owned me. All he said was, "You take care, Sis. You can invite me to your quinceñera when the time comes." That was Gato all over.

He was a big, strong guy, very big for only being sixteen. Thin moustache, short hair. Very big muscles, real strong, and did not take shit from anyone, which was probably a big part of the problem. He was one for talking tough, as you might expect, but he was also ashamed of things that happened, too.

There were other parties later on. Once Omar was drinking too much and he passed out, so a few of his homies thought they would play a trick on him and put lipstick on his face and make him up. Gato was pretty amused by all this, except that when Omar woke up he looked in the mirror and got plenty upset. Gato said, “Hey, don’t worry about it, man. It’s just a joke,” but Omar wanted to fight, so they went outside and we were all standing around. Omar was a great bull and Gato just let him come on and waited until he was too tired to fight anymore. The sound of Omar’s hitting Gato’s guard was a terrible dull splatting the few times it happened—not at all like in the movies. At first it was exciting but then watching them made me feel dizzy. I had to sit down, but in the end Gato was holding him on the ground, covering up his face with a pillow to make him relax until he was able to calm down. He was whispering to him, “It was only a dumb joke. Nobody thinks you’re not a man. Let me let let you up so not to spoil the party.” I was the only one that could hear what he said to make him relax.

So even though the fight happened, I knew he could have a great heart. There were times when I would talk with Gato and he would smile at how crazy people were and not seem to be a rough person at all. He shook his head when talking about his mother and was so devoted to her that he moved out when he thought she might be ashamed of him for what he had done. So he left her house when he was fifteen, before he even met me. Not too long after we met he said to me, “Mi’ija, you have this great future ahead of yourself. Don’t fuck it up.”

There would be times when we would be driving around and somebody would say, "Hey, Gato, how come she no have to sit in the bitch seat?" He might be real quiet and let the person think about what he just done said, or he might answer, "Yo, Lupe, you wouldn't know class if it came up and bit you on the rear. And that's for a fact. Little Sister can sit on the front seat because she is just such a person." He would smile when he said it, or maybe wink.

Escape was Gato's big thing, and how was I to know that when he was around me he thought of just that? He was in the L.V.L.'s, and had been in trouble with the law before then, but he wanted me to know that he would get out in a moment if he could. He did not feel like he had any other options. Once, later, at another party after he’d had a few beers, he said to me me, "Look at me, mi’ija. My life's all fucked up. I've got tattoos on my neck, on my hands. I can't never get a job looking like this." And it was true. Was a man supposed to go and fill out the job application at MacDonald's or Rite-Aid and know the whole time what they thought of him? The guys in the white shirts with the skinny ties would pretend to cough into their fists but be laughing at him, knowing that he would have to lie to say he hadn't been arrested, practically taking bets over whether he would feel so desperate that he couldn't tell the truth. When he was little he didn't want to grow up to be a gang banger and have to sell drugs in order to support himself. But by the time it all came to pass he knew in his heart of hearts that he would die young. The exact words he said to me were, “Me or Weasie is going to go down soon,” so there was no question about whether he knew things were closing in around him., so that even if he was with his buddies, he would throw signs to put himself at risk, not seeming to care about what might happen.

And if I acted too grown up, he would say, “Little Sister, you know what they say? 'No hay ningun mal que por bien no venga.'” Nothing is so bad that something good does not come of it. He knew he was supposed to be the bad influence, so he would tell me to stay in school and not kick it too hard.

It was on a school night when it happened. I was home studying for my American History test when the phone rang. No, that's not right. I had been studying but had gone to bed when the phone rang. Even though mama had not liked me seeing Gato very much, I heard her cry out from down in the kitchen, saying, "No, no," over and over. I put on my bathrobe and got up to see what was up. The yellow glare from the kitchen light made everything seem fake, like it didn't belong there, even the corny Sally and Peppy burros in the middle of the table that mom bought at a garage sale. This was the place where I'd had breakfast practically every morning of my life, but it seemed like someone else’s house. Mama saw my eyes were not adjusting to the light right away, and I kind of staggered when I stepped out of the dark stairway and they didn't focus. She took me in her arms and held me tight before she said, "Gato is dead."

 

Roberto Juaquin Salazar. The paper talked about him like he was trash. All that had happened, at least according to his homies, was that they were at the Taco Time at Southgate when some guys from the Sky View Locos came in. They talked some trash but nothing bad had happened. I don't know why his homies left him there, but Gato said for them to. He said he could take care of himself. He said those vatos were not gonna give him any shit, and they believed him. I found out the next day how they must've followed him out. Between a tatoo of a butterfly and a red rose on his left forearm were the words "Sureños hasta la muerte," and on the right it read "Una vida mejor," and all I could think about for about a week afterward was how they followed him out. He was hanging with some Varrio Locos from near there, not his regular set, and they were young, and did not know or maybe did not even care what might happen to him if they left. “Punks, is what they are,” says Omar. The S.V.L.’s may have waited until he was halfway out to his car and then busted out the door after him. You know the clanging sound the metal bar on the glass door makes when you slam it open? The Taco Time guy said he didn't know why those guys had left in such a hurry. Sure. He didn't want to be out in that parking lot, that’s for sure. I kept thinking of how long it must of took them. Was he surrounded out there, and them slashing at his arm he was using for protection and then finally one of them getting him in the gut to bring him down? That is what they do. Gato himself had probably done it to some poor guy for his own initiation. There is no point in trying to make him out to be some innocent victim, even though it was murder. Anyone would call it murder. Finally, they wedged him next to the dark green dumpster around the corner in the parking lot and stabbed him through the chest a lot. And why did Gato have "Una vida mejor" there on his arm if it was not for his parents who had come north to find a better life? He was only seventeen. He knew he would not live to be twenty-five.

The articles in the papers all said that Roberto had been a member of a gang, and that had been the reason for his death. The headline said, "Violent Death Pre-Destined?" and the story went on and said that he had "cheated death" two years ago when he was shot in the back and survived, but that finally death had "caught up with him." It let on in several places that Gato's death was somehow less of an injustice, less of a tragedy because he had been warned. Did they think he didn't know that he could not turn back.

In a few minutes Carlos will be home from work. He has to wear a coat and tie, because it is a management training program. My hands are covered with masa. I wrap the tamales in long corn shucks just like my dad taught me, and then cut each one. Then I put the extras in the freezer. The knives the Sky View Locos used on Gato were much smaller. They used knives that were only meant to lock open, do a job quickly, and then be ready for more, the next cut. I know this because Gato's mama did not let the funeral home guys dress him up with new clothes, but made them put on the same ones he'd been wearing, only they'd been washed. The cuts did not look very big, but there were lots of them. Because it had been a cool night in late September, the long sleeves covered up his tattoos. And the collar was pulled up to hide the ones on the side of his neck. Isn’t it amazing, the things mothers will do? The thoughts mothers have?

Carmelita is breathing in and out now. I fixed her hair the way Carlos likes it. A tiny star of gold light shines from her earlobe. She must be having the kind of sleep we all dream about. I know this because her eyelids have turned purple, and her lips are moving in and out as if she was nursing my breast, even though she is fast asleep. In her dreams she has never thought about how the world will change and what it might do to her. 

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