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By Sarah Alvarado

[dropcap1]J[/dropcap1]oanie was the firstborn of nine – the love child of a young girl and an adulterous older man. Her mother, Rosana, had two more children with this man but finally left him when she accepted he would never leave his wife. As the years went on, more siblings were born with various fathers.

Rosana was one of the few things they shared. She was young; she drank and knew men. She wore tight black pants, tight low-cut blouses, black hair teased high on her head, and a tattoo on her bosom. Once Rosana’s mother got fed up with the borderline negligent situation in which her grandchildren lived. She rescued them from Rosana’s house and resettled them at her own place. Eventually, though, the children drifted back to their mother one by one.

Joanie was their shepherd. She strived to be a good example and take responsibility for her flock of little brothers and sisters. She gave them the love and attention that Rosana did not.

Joanie strived to get her siblings to church; she would call different churches each week and make arrangements for her siblings to be picked up by van. She made sure each of her brothers and sisters had a present on their birthdays. She would scrimp and save her babysitting money to buy them a trinket, or she would make them a gift. On the summer days when Rosana would drop off the kids at the park (sometimes with lunch, sometimes without) it was Joanie who kept a watchful eye on her brothers on the grass and her baby sisters in the playground.

Mother and daughter were close at times, but Rosana would also shove, yell, and throw things at Joanie. One stepfather who passed through was just mean. If he didn’t like the food he was served he would throw his plate at the wall.

Outside of her home Joanie was a normal teenager. She dressed in the “chola” style that was popular in the 1970s, but she had good grades, loved music, and she played in her junior high school marching band. She befriended nerds and cholos alike.

Eileen was her best friend. They went to the 8th grade dance together and danced to funk music during lunch. Joanie came to Eileen the first time she had feelings for a boy. Joanie was so scared, not sure if she could be involved with someone – not sure if she should say something. Eileen gave her the courage she needed.

“Joanie – I love you, and you deserve to be in love.”

One October day, Joanie’s date, Jim, came over. Jim asked Rosana if he could take Joanie to a family party. Joanie felt Jim’s family didn’t like her and that she would never be good enough for him. Rosana initially said no. But Jim pleaded; he promised he would have Joanie home early. Rosana relented. As Joanie walked out the door, she looked back. It struck Rosana right then that that might be the last time she saw her daughter alive.

At the party, Joanie and Jim got into an argument. Joanie left on foot, alone, in a dark and lonely part of town. Presumably, Jim let her go. After blocks into her journey she made it to a pay phone. She called and called. Rosana wasn’t home. The children who answered had no way of helping her. Joanie called Eileen. Eileen wasn’t home, either.

Joanie’s body was found not far from her home, in a deserted area, with unspeakable things done to it. To this day no one has been arrested for Joanie’s murder.

The school held a moment of silence in Joanie’s honor. Some people claimed to be closer to Joanie than they actually were in hopes of seeking attention. Money was raised in Joanie’s memory. Even though he had little to do with her in life, Joanie’s father was contacted and it was he who decided on her final resting place and paid most of the expenses. Hundreds attended Joanie’s funeral.

Following Joanie’s death the family fell further from grace. The older boys had matured into a posse of gang members who used drugs and alcohol. A couple of the boys did their best in athletics and high school life. The two girls mostly kept to themselves.

Wild parties became the norm at their house; Joanie’s now teenage brothers drank too much and passed out. Rosana turned a blind eye, even when her son was asleep on a cold night without a blanket on the dewy lawn. To the neighbors it likely looked like poor parenting from a woman with too many kids to parent. In hindsight Rosana was probably lost in her own grief, trying to forget that she was not there when her daughter needed a ride home.

Joanie was my aunt. She died five years before I was born. My father asked Rosana for permission to name me after her – but Rosana couldn’t give it.

My mom joined the family when she was 16, too young to understand what she was getting into. In the early years we were close to Dad’s family. They helped us secure a spot in the same apartment complex they lived in; so family was just down the driveway. Aunts and cousins running back and forth between the houses was the norm. Mom used to tag along on shopping trips. My cousin and I played Ding Dong Ditch between the houses.

Yet before I reached 10 Mom knew she wanted out. Arguments erupted behind locked screen doors. My cousin didn’t want to help me carry books home from school because he was afraid he would get in trouble for doing it. There were tears and restraining orders against the kin that lived one house behind us. Dad was caught in the middle; a natural pacifist between two families that meant the world to him but could no longer live in peace.

When I was young I used to think that if Joanie had lived she could have kept the kids from drugs and alcohol, and led them away from all that. I would then have had a family on my dad’s side with aunts, uncles, cousins, and a grandma. She would have been my favorite aunt and would have understood me.

When I was a kid Joanie’s picture was on the living room wall. Visitors would ask when I had my picture taken, my parents would reply, “That’s not Sarah; that’s her Aunt Joanie.” Our resemblance was uncanny. When I was a child I would stare at Aunt Joanie’s portrait and use it as a window to accept myself. Knowing that I looked like the beautiful young lady in the picture steadied my self esteem.

Now that I’m older my features have changed in ways that hers never had the opportunity to. I miss hearing people exclaim, “Wow! I thought that was you! You guys look alike!” Our physical likeness has faded, but our kinship has grown.

I wonder if she would have been “Auntie” or “Tia,” or simply “Joanie.” She’s the older sister I wish had been there for my dad in his times of hopelessness. She’s the aunt I longed for when I felt so lonely amid the family chaos. She’s the kind older sister, who would do anything for her charges, that I strive to be like.

The family felt the wound of Joanie’s death for years. Because of this, I only recently found out where she was laid to rest. Almost weekly now I sit here with Joanie. I unfold my picnic blanket. I have my coffee. I eat my croissant. I tell her why I picked the flowers that I did, and what kind I might get next time. I think about what people have told me, about how she was. My connection to her feels as real as the grass I stroke beneath me and the breeze that kisses my nose.

Sarah Snapseed

 

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By Richard Gatica

The day before I killed Donald Evans I did not even know he existed. The day he died I was smoking crack cocaine and when I smoke crack, nothing else matters. Not family, not friends – not even God.

Each time that I smoked crack, I could hear little demons and their excited little whispers. I knew what I was doing was wrong. That pleased them even more.

At the time, I was out of money and robbing drug dealers on the streets of Los Angeles. Crack was everywhere then. Black dealers would stand in the dark shadows near street corners and sell to people as they drove up in cars. Sometimes several dealers would share the same spot and race to the customer as soon as he pulled up. A half-dozen hands would thrust through the car window, each with a display of rocks. The customer would make his selection according to size, color, and weight, as if he were buying precious jewels. He would then speed off and the dealers would run back into the shadows.

I was driving around at five in the morning looking for a dealer to rob. It was still dark. I was planning on simply snatching the rocks out of the dealer’s hand and speeding away. I found no one at my regular spots, which was odd even at that hour. It seemed as if the cops had just done a sweep.

I drove further into the slums and finally seen a woman standing on a corner. I asked if she knew where I could get some crack. She said yes. I told her to get in. She had me drive a few blocks. I could tell she was a smoker herself. Probably a prostitute. They were called “strawberries” – women who sold their bodies for crack. I once saw a strawberry actually perform fellatio on a dog for a hit of crack.

So as this strawberry directed me to a dealer, I knew she would be willing to rob him. After driving a few blocks, she had me pull over in front of a house. Donald came out from the shadows. He was dirty and I saw that if he was a dealer, he was his own best customer. Donald walked up to her window and showed her some rocks. I asked him to pass them to me so I could see them more closely. He was hesitant at first. I told him to hurry before the cops came. He passed the rocks to me. As I pretended to inspect them I put the truck in gear and stepped on the gas. The truck shot backwards. I had put the truck in reverse by mistake. Donald the crack monster held on to the passenger side door unwilling to surrender his product. I put the truck in drive and it shot forward in a cloud of smoke.

People came out of the shadows and started throwing objects at the truck. Through all of this Donald held on tight. The strawberry started screaming like there was no tomorrow. For Donald, there wasn’t. I gathered speed and started zigzagging down the street in an attempt to shake Donald off, but he held tight.

Somehow he got the door open and was swaying back and forth on it. I seen this as an opportunity to smack him up against a light pole or parked car but every time I would get close the door swung inward.

Donald’s last words were, “I’m going to kick your fuckin’ ass.”

For suddenly he was gone. He had fallen off the truck and was sucked up under it. We were doing about sixty miles per hour. His body slammed against the undercarriage. The rear tires lifted off the ground. Donald never had a chance. He bounded and rolled and slid down the street and came to rest under a parked car.

I drove a few more blocks, made a series of turns, pulled over and told the strawberry to get out. She turned to me and asked, “Aren’t we gonna smoke some rock?”

I yelled at her to get the fuck out before I killed her. I would have hit her face against the dashboard until she was dead because she was delaying me from smoking my rock. She tried to get out but the door handle was gone. Donald must have taken it with him. Maybe he was holding onto it and it broke off, causing him to fall. Finally, the strawberry climbed out of the window and as she did, she told me to never ask her for a favor again. Later, I learned she was killed by one of her tricks soon after that.

I went back home and found that my beautiful wife had left me – I wonder why. I thought we were doing pretty good. At least I had my rock. I smoked it in the living room alone. As soon as the rush came I went to the window and peeked through the curtains watching for any suspicious activity. I stood there motionless for over an hour trying to detect any danger. I seen an old lady walk by with a cart and could see that she was covertly talking into a police radio as she glanced my way. They thought I was so stupid!

I finally laid down on the couch and started to formulate a new plan for my next rock. I had just killed a man for a fifteen-minute high and an hour of paranoia.

I went to sleep and woke up to the sound of the police banging on my front door. I tried to run out through the back door but found more police waiting for me back there.

I was arrested but not for killing Donald. I was arrested for stealing the truck that I used to kill him. The police did not connect me to killing Donald for another sixteen years.

Donald was a black man. He was forty-four years old. I was twenty. He had a long rap sheet but nothing very serious. He was addicted to crack just like me.

He died from what is called “eggshell” cracking of the skull. Imagine taking a hard-boiled egg and dropping it, then rolling it around a little. His left ear and most of the left side of his face and neck were torn off as well.

I often look at the autopsy report and photographs as a reminder of what drugs can do. When I was a little boy at school playing on the monkey bars, I never imagined that I would one day be addicted to drugs or that I would kill another man to support my habit or that I would spend the rest of my life in prison.

As I said, prior to killing Donald I did not know he existed. Yet because of our mutual addictions, our fates will forever be entwined. His body is rotting in a dark cold grave and mine in a dark cold prison. The distance between us is very narrow and if there is a God may He have mercy on our souls.

_______

RICHARD GATICA 1Richard Gatica of a former prison gang member and crack addict who is serving three life sentences for murder in the California prison system. He has completed a memoir of his life, from which this story was taken.

 

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