June 1, 2016: “El Gato” by Ito Romo

Good day to you, Story366! It’s June now, meaning I’ve completed a full five months of Story366, and if there were any lingering doubts that I’m committed to succeeding at this project, those are hopefully dispelled. Five months of doing a daily project have taught me a few lessons about organization, priorities, and time management, and if you’re wondering, yes, there’s been quite a few days that Story366 has gotten posted at the last possible second, not to mention the days that completing it has seriously altered my life plans, and the plans of my family. It’s certainly a part of my life now, and everyone—here in Springfield and in Chicago—knows the score. My support system is supporting the project.

The only thing I have to fret about now is some kind of emergency that keeps me from reading and writing and posting. I guess if it’s that kind of emergency, I won’t be worrying all that much about short story blogs, caring if I’m a day late with a post. It’s not like I’m going to be in an emergency room—with either me or a loved one as the patient—composing anecdotes and literary analysis. Last week, I wrote a couple of posts in a hospital, but that was a planned surgery, me sitting in a waiting room for several hours each day, waiting. Outside of an unforeseen incident of this kind, I think I should be able to prevail.

Today’s story comes to us via Ito Romo, a writer whose work I did not know before today. His book is The Border Is Burning and it’s a beautiful little hardcover from the University of New Mexico Press (also the first book, I believe, I’ve read from that press). This is another collection I picked up a couple of weeks ago in Chicago, and when I got that stack home, I immediately went about friending all the authors, if possible on Facebook; when the author reposts the link on social media like FB and Twitter, tagging me, Story366 gets exponentially more hits, which is good for me and good for the author.

And it just so happens that while I was working this morning, picking a book for today’s entry, I saw on FB that it’s Romo’s birthday. I don’t know him at all, and certainly, I’ve not been organized enough to cover all that many writers on their birthday (Jean Thompson is one exception, from January 3, but she’s my pal). Opportunity struck, though, Romo’s book right there, so I grabbed it and read a few stories this afternoon.

The stories, so far, in The Border Is Burning take place on or near the U.S.-Mexican border. The first story, “Baby Money,” surrounds a flood on the Rio Grande, what one Mexican woman finds in her living room when she clears the mud from the stone. The next, “Chicken Pot Pie,” follows a dad and his three sons as they drive from San Antonio to Laredo, a trip that ends less than positively.

The story I’m covering today, “El Gato,” sticks out to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Romo has his protagonist—an unnamed young woman—come across a diner where they serve chicken fried French fries, and immediately, my imagination, i.e., my stomach, felt intrigued. Romo even explains how to make them: Cut the fries, fry them halfway, pull them out of the fryer, dip them in chicken batter, then fry them until they’re brown. Now, Story366 readers, I’m aware of the books, namely mysteries, that involve all manners of chefs, from sauciers to barbecuers to caterers, and these books often include recipes, either in the back of the book or right in the middle of the prose, as part of the plot. That’s not usually, or ever, my experience while reading literary short stories, and isn’t, to be clear, what Romo does here—his book isn’t a collection of recipes. Still, when I came across Romo’s concoction—whether it’s his or if he discovered them somewhere—all I could think was, “Do we have potatoes? Do we have oil? Do we have chicken batter?”

The non-recipe part of “El Gato” is pretty great, too, though. Why’s Romo’s protagonist traveling, eating in diners? She’s run away from her boyfriend, the guy she lives with, because she’s caught him cheating. How? Firstly, the perfume wafting from his person. Secondly, the stains on his clothes. Thirdly, and most prevalently, his underwear has cat hair all over it. How else, she reasons, does a guy with clean underwear leave in the morning and come home with underwear covered in cat hair? She’s nailed this guy, she thinks (and so do I), and takes off, heading to Monterey.

“El Gato” is not a long story, so I’m not going to go into much more plot detail, but will note that Romo employs a rule of three, utilizing cats. The first cat appearance is the hair on the underwear, while the second is from a radio story that our hero hears on her drive, about a tamale vendor who has been caught using … well, you get the idea. The third? You’ll have to read for yourself and see.

The stories in Ito Romo’s The Border Is Burning live up to the title, not only in their setting, the border, but in the sense that everyone seems to be burning. The stories depict conflict, yeah, but not just simple man vs. anything. These stories are full of strife, anger, hatred, even a little madness. They’re all short and fast-paced, all right on target. Happy birthday, Ito. Thanks for the present you’ve given us in your fantastic collection.