Rito Alatorre: Smoke and Mirrors [Free-flow Friday]
I heard Rito’s story from my elementary school auditorium one day. I was nine and altogether more concerned with being outside playing basketball than listening to somebody talk about something. Rito was, however, Connie’s brother, and Connie was a cool kid, which meant listening to Rito was about as necessary as being able to drop basketball stats at any given moment.
Rito was seventeen when he came and spoke about what it was like being so much older than us, and about how easy it was to become interested in things you never thought you would when you got older. Apparently, becoming a teenager made him more susceptible to boring things we kids wouldn’t understand. He told us he dreamt of playing football and maybe going to college. He shared about wanting to make his family proud.
While he only spoke for fifteen minutes, I thought he’d been up there for two days. I glanced at the empty basketball courts outside from time to time.
By the end, he paused, and I will never forget the look on his face when he said: “Kids, I’ve been smoking now for three years, and the doctors told me that I am going to die.”
Shock swam circles around the room like piranhas. Kids whispered to each other. I forgot about Connie and being cool. Instead, I couldn’t believe that Rito, the future football star, was going to die. Death was, after all, a disease only old people got. Sickness, maybe. But death? As in no longer getting to ride your bike, eat pizza, play sports, nor watching Saturday-morning cartoons?
I may have had one of my first existential thoughts that afternoon. As my friends and I walked home from school we practiced kicking a soccer ball against trashcans and garage doors. All the while I was beside myself. Rito and Connie lived on my street, meaning I saw them almost everyday. Rito liked to work on his car and always wore a black tank-top and a pair of pristine Adidas. He had small, shiny hoop earrings in each ear and always wore his hair slicked back. After hearing him speak that day I realized I must have missed the lit cigarette he was always holding. I changed my memories of him by drawing a white stick with an orange glow into his right hand or placing it between his lips. Sup man, he’d say, giving me a wave as I’d pass, smoke now floating above his lifted hand. Yeah, sup man yourself, Rito, I thought as I kicked the ball hard against a garage door. I can’t believe you’re going to die. My guts were a rag being wrenched and wrung out inside me. I got a little depressed that day.
But life went on. Within a few days I forgot about Rito’s speech and eventual death and was back to perfecting my basketball skills.
On my way to school one morning, as my nine year-old mind considered the gravity of colossal basketball fame, I passed Rito and Connie’s house. I stopped for a moment and studied the quiet home. The sun was peeking over and began pouring onto the roof. The tan stucco was chipping off in places near the bottom of the house by the grass. Oil stains marked the driveway and would possibly be there forever, hauntingly reminding me that Rito died from smoking cigarettes there. I figured he would simply leave one night, like on a bus, only never to return.
But, on my way home from school that day I found him out front working away on his car, just like I did on most afternoons. He noticed me slowing my step and said, Sup man.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just shook my head in remorse and walked on.
The next school year I went into fifth grade and started to like girls. I wanted more than anything to impress them with my rebounding and shooting talent. Stardom was getting closer, and I worked harder than ever at it. I sweat the entire summer away like a road-worker, practicing with the chaotic zeal of a third string point guard.
Meanwhile, Connie developed a little gang of girls who made a habit of standing around the basketball courts pretending not to notice the games. Before long, my friends and I started walking home from school with Connie’s gang. Priorities and motives went inevitably shifted. We became their boys, ready to fight anybody and anything. Kicking over a trashcan every once in a while never made so much sense. When we would arrive at Connie’s house she and her friends always found a way to slip away up the driveway, leaving us to get the rest of our kicks out alone on the curb outside.
After a pretty spectacular game of ball one day, our groups took form and headed home. As we neared Connie’s house I saw something extraordinary, miraculous even. I was so at awe that I slowed behind the group to allow myself to process. There, before our eyes, was Rito. He wore his black tank-top, jeans, and Adidas sneakers and was washing the roof of his car. I thought Jesus must have returned and now we had all gone to Heaven.
Connie yelled to him. “Rito, I’m home! Me and my friends are going inside.”
“Alright, whatever,” he said, still scrubbing his roof.
I was dumbfounded. I watched his every movement and tried to understand how it was possible. I turned to my friend Vince.
“Didn’t he say he was supposed to die?”
“I dunno, did he?”
“Yeah, in the auditorium. Remember? Last year?”
“Oh.” He thought a moment. “No, I don’t remember that.”
“Really?” Now I was not so sure. Maybe I was wrong. But I knew what I heard him say, I remembered his face, the way he clenched his fist when he said, “I am going to die.” He must have undergone some kind of medical miracle that extended his life another year. This had to mean that by now it could be any day. Any day, Rito, I thought and felt sorry for him all over again.
Of course, another year went by and I still found him washing and fixing his car on his oil-stained driveway. His sup man’s started to annoy me due to their belligerent disregard to the sanctity of life. What a jerk, I thought. How can he just be so casual?
Another year passed. Sup man’s flowed like water.
Then one day I realized what really happened on that gloomy fourth-grade day. The real Rito Alatorre shared his declarative death-speech, and as soon as he left the stage his twin brother, whom I never knew about, assumed his place in life. The real Rito truly died, perhaps later that evening on the night of his speech. I imagined him laid out on a warm bed aside a warm cup of hot chocolate. I imagined Connie and her sisters and mother crying, and Rito’s twin brother and Father rolling up their sleeves and getting ready to do what they knew they needed to after his passing: bury the legend.
Several years later I saw Connie at the grocery store. It had been almost four years but the sight of her instantly made me think of Rito. In that moment, I felt betrayed. I felt frustrated and bothered, and all because I thought going to the store for a bottle of Sprite was a good idea. I remember the pieces falling together in my mind. I get it now, I thought. My school coaxed a young man to convince a room full of children not to smoke by telling them that he was going to die.
Today, Rito Alatorre has a wife and kids and they still live down the street from me.