Commentary and Philosophy Non-Fiction posted November 8, 2015


Exceptional
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Boy learns a new word: hearse.

The Olive Branch

by Sis Cat


When I answered the banging on my apartment door, David Reyes gripped my waist, kissed my stomach, and smiled as he cheered, “André, guess what? My uncle’s been shot!”
 
My brother and I stared at the boy, who bounced in the center of attention. Behind him, boys chattered about going to Taco Bell to watch the police clean up the mess left by the drive-by shooting in the parking lot.
 
Later, my brother and I played basketball with Dave. His mother called him away from our game. He left us holding the ball and walked off the sun-baked court, passed beneath an olive tree, and descended steps to speak to his mother. He returned to sit on one side of the olive tree while I sat on the other. Dave explained, “Mom wanted to know if it was true that her brother has been shot, and I told her, ‘Yes, at Taco Bell.’ Now she’s leaving for the hospital with family and friends.” Dave’s finger worried his bare knee. “I hope Blaze is still alive.”
 
Nicknamed Blaze, Dave’s uncle belonged to the Sunland Park Gang. I never asked what his uncle’s real name was. I studied the line of ants crawling up the tree between us and searched for something to say. “How old was he?”
 
“Twenty.”
 
That makes Blaze eight years younger than I and twelve years older than his nephew. I was Dave’s age when Blaze was born. I have lived longer than both of them combined. 
 
“Were you close to him?”
 
“Yeah, he used to fix my bike.”
 
“Maybe my brother can fix it from now on.”
 
Dave remained silent as the olive branches above swayed in the hot August wind.
 
#
 
The next morning, Dave visited my apartment while I washed dishes. I suspected he played hooky. I raised an eyebrow at the truant. “Why aren’t you in school today?”
 
Standing beside me at the kitchen sink, he looked up like a puppy whose accident soiled the carpet. “My mother didn’t wake me in time.”
 
“That’s no excuse. When I was your age, I went to school every day. I loved school. There’s no place I’d rather be. There are things to do, kids to play with, lunch to eat. Well, I never missed a day of school in my life.”
 
The boy rolled his eyes. “Nah!”
 
“How much you wanna bet?” I extended a soap-covered hand in hopes he would shake on our bet. “I even have perfect attendance awards to prove it, but the important thing is that even if my mother didn’t wake me up in time, I would rather go to school late than not at all.”
 
“But my mother was at the hospital all night. Blaze is dead.”
 
My brown hands stopped washing dishes. I whispered, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
 
“That’s okay.”
 
I imagined Dave’s mother so grieved by her brother’s death and so tired from waiting at the hospital that she did not have the energy to wake her son in the morning for school. I looked him in the eye. “I’m sorry I criticized you for not being in school today.”
 
His round, Mexican face softened. He scratched his scabby knee with a bare, dirty foot while the other anchored to the checkered linoleum floor. “That’s okay.”
 
But everything was not okay. Dave seemed to be taking his uncle’s death better than I was. I did not even know the man. I wanted to hug his nephew and say “I’m sorry for your loss,” if not to heal the pain he must have felt behind his empty gaze, then to heal the pain I felt for him.
 
The boy stared at me with brown, questioning eyes. “Why do you say ‘I’m sorry’ when you didn’t even kill Blaze?”
 
What is this boy? A mind reader?
 
“That’s an expression adults use when they feel sorry or sad about something bad that happened.”
 
“Oh,” he said. He paused before proceeding. “What happens when a bullet hits you in the eye?”
 
I realized that Blaze would have a closed casket funeral. I lifted a fist from the dish water, held my hand in front of my eye, and flicked open my fingers in a sunburst. Suds flung to the wall behind the sink. “Your head explodes and you die.”
 
The boy’s cupped hands shaped an invisible box, which traveled across the air. “What do they call that black car they take the body in?”
 
“A hearse. It looks like a station wagon, but it’s longer and black.”
 
“What do they put the body in?”
 
“A coffin. That’s a wooden box for dead people.”
 
“Where do they take dead people?”
 
“The cemetery. That’s where they bury them in their coffins.”
 
“Is it true that worms come out of the body?” He wriggled his fingers in front of his stomach like emerging worms.
 
“Yes.”
 
“The gang is going to shoot the people who shot Blaze.”
 
“I know, but if they do, the other gang will shoot back. That makes no sense. The killing must stop somewhere. That’s why I don’t want you playing with cap guns anymore. I didn’t think it was funny when I answered the door the other day and you shot a cap gun in my face. You thought it was a big joke and ran away, laughing, but it was no joke to me, because people often get shot when opening doors. Even though the gun was a toy, it scared me, especially after I hid on the floor behind my bed on those nights when your uncle’s gang shot real guns into the air above the apartments.”
 
The boy’s smile at his prank wilted when he realized the enormity of what he had done. “I’m sorry, André.”
 
“David, promise me something. Never join gangs. All they do is hurt and kill people.”
 
“I won’t.”
 
“Now, help me take out the trash. Here.”
 
I pulled the plug from the drain and handed Dave a trash-filled shopping bag. The greasy dish water drained as I grabbed another bag hanging on the kitchen closet door knob. Dave ran ahead of me to the apartment door. He turned and asked, “André, do you know that when the big earthquake comes we will all die?”
 
“Yes, Dave, I know.”
 
I followed him outside to the trash dumpster and wondered if I should talk to him about Heaven. After I tossed my bag in, he saw a basket of dried flowers spill out upon the garbage, buzzing with bees. “Why did you throw the flowers away?”
 
“Because they’re dead. My brother in Baltimore gave them to my mother for her birthday a week ago, and now they’re dried.”
 
“Couldn’t you pour some water on them?”
 
“We did, but that didn’t stop them from dying. Once you pick a flower, it starts to die, no matter how much water you pour on it.”
 
Returning from the dumpsters, I knelt beneath one of the olive trees that dotted the mountainside apartment complex. The boy squatted beside me in the shade. I picked up a withered, broken branch. “See this here? It’s dead.”
 
Dave crumpled the curled, brown leaves which fluttered to the ground like confetti.
 
I pointed to a shoot sprouting from a root. “Now compare it to this branch. Notice the difference. It’s alive. The leaves are green and soft, while the leaves you’re holding are brown and hard.” I spread my hands over the sandy soil. “The tree gets water from the ground through these roots here. The water goes up the trunk and feeds the branches. But once you pick a branch, it starts to die because it can no longer get water. Do you understand?”
 
He nodded. “Yes.”
 
I stood and grabbed an olive branch above. Dave gazed upward. He waited to see if I would break it off to illustrate a life or death lesson. I pulled the branch, bejeweled with fruit, the leaves green on the top and silver on the bottom. My fingers paused in a pinching gesture, and then released the branch unharmed. It sprung up into the tree. We walked back to the apartment.
 


Recognized


I found a typed copy of my story "The Olive Branch" tucked inside a manila envelope which contained my first published story, "The Ghost Pumpkin Fire Brigade." I had forgotten the unpublished story which recounts a conversation I had with a neighborhood boy named Dave about life and death. I read the story for the first time in twenty-three years. My handling of a difficult subject impressed me.

Seeking to publish it, I revised this story, updating my prose, although I am at a loss to recount more details than I described in the story. I had also forgotten that I used to sleep on the floor to avoid gang bullets.

I discovered my September 23, 1992 journal entry in which I recount my reading of "The Olive Branch" to David: "When I read the part where I told him never to join gangs, he nodded goofily that he will." The entry later states that his uncle's killer was shot in the heart in a retaliatory shooting and an older friend of Dave's was wounded in another shooting the same day.

It grieves me to think that despite my effort, Dave may be dead now if he joined the gang as he promised. If he is alive, he would be thirty-one today. A year after the events described in this story, I fled for my life from the Sunland Park Apartments, just north of Los Angeles.
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