"Never work a short con south of El Paso. It's all just loco down there." -Grifter saying
Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! To what end is it for you? The day of the LORD is darkness, and not light. As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.Shall not the day of the LORD be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it? - Holy Bible, King James Version, Amos, 18-20
In Ohio and Kansas and Missouri and also sometimes in Oklahoma, Daddy was a professional fashion photographer. He put out an ad in the paper and girls and their parents came to our motel room. He took photographs of the girls, developing negatives and making prints later on in the bathtub with plastic trays of chemicals and developer fluid and a red light bulb. Then he made a list of names and called and spoke to the parents at home. He said he was very excited, the head shots had turned out beautifully, and of course it was up to them, but perhaps they might be interested in investing in a whole series of shots, a complete book. He added he had just spoken to his friend Remy in New York at the Ford Talent Agency and she was very excited about this “find.” Daddy said he thought the girl might have a shot at a top notch career making big money and ending up in the movies. Of course he understood if they needed to take their time and move slowly, yes, it’s a big decision, but it’s also a stunning opportunity, the chance of a lifetime really. He could put together a portfolio in a matter of days, it would require five or six sessions. The total cost was five hundred dollars, and of that sum he would need, oh, let’s say three-fifty upfront to cover immediate expenses. This was just operating money, he said, lowering his voice to add that his fee would actually be paid by the Agency, in the form of a ten thousand dollar finder’s bonus. Assuming they like the portfolio. And he had every confidence they would, because Remy was even now drawing up a contract and making calls to magazine editors. Daddy noted the appointment times in a leather diary he kept in his briefcase. He shot in the motel room, which he turned into a “studio” every morning, bringing in new props as the mood struck him. Once he brought in bales of hay and made a haystack, and the girl model posed in work clothes holding a pitchfork. Another time, he used tikki gods and fake palm trees to create a “South Seas” theme, the girl posing in a grass skirt with her fine black hair spread out to cover her small breasts. He made sure there was a good half hour between appointments, so his would-be protégés did not meet in the parking lot. I was his assistant, moving props back and forth, adjusting the lights as he fiddled with the camera. The mother and/or father alternately writhed and beamed. A signed check was placed on the bed, and business concluded with a ceremonial handshake. We ate steak every night. After the week of shooting Lolitas with an empty camera, we packed up all the equipment and props, dropped off the room key, paid the desk clerk in cash, and drove out of town.
In Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, and also in Pennsylvania, Daddy posed as the sole heir to a fortune of many millions bequeathed to him by his father, who with his dear mother had recently perished in a yachting accident in a sudden squall off Amagansett. He’d had some trouble with lawyers, one unscrupulous law-firm trying to charge a number of unwarranted fees until he put a stop to it, but the large New York firm Glengary, Glen & Ross was handling his affairs now and it all seemed to be going so smoothly until paper work got delayed in the routing through Belgium, where his father had owned a big shipping company. Though finding himself at least temporarily stranded, without two dimes to rub together in the midst of a long-anticipated road trip with his son (bequeathed several million by his grandparents, alas not to be touched until his twenty first birthday) he did not intend to stop donating to important charities and attending gala cultural events due to ludicrous screw-ups by lawyers and bankers. So he offered his beautifully printed oversized checks to local charities, asking only that they hold off depositing the checks until confirmation by phone or fax machine that the inheritance was safely out of probate. Confidentially, and with some embarrassment, daddy then asked for a short term loan to cover his hotel bills, meals, tips, and new outdoors equipment, including trout fishing gear and tackle to replace what had been stolen out of his car trunk that very morning while he was on the long distance line to Glengary, Glenn & Ross. He was particularly fond of this scam, which he called “dunning the charities.” He used to proclaim, “Son, this meal is on the Elks.” “Tonight we eat courtesy of the Shriners.” “Let us now praise the generosity of Lenore Walters and her School for Blind Children” “Here’s to the Frick Foundation,” etc.
Yawning, lying back in his underpants and undershirt on the motel bed, Daddy explained that for his charity game the key to making that all important first impression is context. So you had to meet the denizens of Who’s Who on their own turf, at polo games and operas and in high-priced restaurants over plates of oysters and glasses of white wine. You had to look the part and talk the part. That’s why the charity scam demanded a big upfront investment. You had to expect to put out two or three thousand a ticket to one of those lavish fund raising dinners served on some faux manor lawn or in a historic pile of rocks, and you had to show up in the right suit, not an uptight suit but a relaxed one that fit you like glove, meaning it had to be hand-tailored, not bought off the rack at Anderson Little, and you also had to have logged in many hours doing research in a public library, flipping through the multiple volumes of the yearly publication Who’s Who in North America and taking painstakingly detailed notes on index cards. You had to select your mark with care. You had to show restraint, wry humor, and fine poise. It was better not to target the charity whose fund-raiser you were attending; there were always members of the board of some other worthy cause floating around like butterflies at these to-does. You had to let the topic of a donation come up naturally in the flow of conversation, not during that particular meeting, but a few seemingly inadvertent encounters later. And when you presented the check, it had to be in amount great enough to suffuse the mark’s eyes with warm tears -- but not so much as to raise the demon of doubt. The rest was a cinch. Altogether, the charity game took a lot of balls (in both senses), savoir-faire, and get-go. But when the charity game worked it worked like a charm.
In Portland and Ottowa and sometimes in Memphis he was a preacher for the Spiritual Light Bible Church, bearing the blessings of Billy Graham, the Pope, and Elvis, and was seeking funds to build a magnificent soaring tower of steel and glass that had already been designed by I. M. Pei where he would unite the worldwide congregation that had already received his teachings. He had received a revelation from the Lord while in his twenty fifth year and immediately quit his job as a Hoover door to door salesman and had traveled the country ever since with his only son, preaching the Gospel and raising funds for his church. Why, he had right here in his breast pocket a bankbook for First Tennessee Trust listing a balance beside every name, and the sum had risen to five hundred thousand dollars. When his unifying gospel church finally soared into the sky, why on its white granite foundation stone would be etched with the names of all those who had contributed so much as a modest sum. “The widow’s mite,” he boomed. Many of the names were copied from the social pages of newspapers and the ones that were real tended to be blue-haired women in the South. Daddy did in fact raise plenty of money for the Spiritual Light Bible Church but there never was a bank balance. He spent the money with gusto as soon as the checks cleared. “Gas, food, rent,” he said, counting the cash. “God help me, I’m a thespian.”
In New Jersey, with a yarmulke on his head and a faint blue tattoo on his wrist, he collected funds for a Holocaust Memorial. He was a good friend of Jerry Lewis, whose parents as you well know were murdered in the death camps, and for a mere five hundred dollar donation he could offer the donor a glossy print of Jerry dedicated in sweeping black felt tip pen, “With thanks for all the laughs, Jerry.”
In Sacramento, Daddy opened the Black Dragon Kung Fu School. He hung calligraphy scrolls on the wall he had bought in San Francisco’s Chinatown, along with a framed photo of himself as a young man in a giri posed unsmiling next to a wisp of an old Oriental man. I knew this photo had been taken during his sophomore year in college when he’d studied judo. Though he never advanced in judo beyond the brown belt, and did not study any other martial art, he told his students he been trained at the Shaolin Temple in China. He said that the man in the picture was China’s foremost exponent of kung fu, a man who could walk on treetops, skim across lakes like a stone, and bury himself for up to ten days in an iron coffin without harm. Daddy was big, strong and imposing and he had a frightening scowl. When the time came during each day’s lesson to spar with select students, he put on his most terrifying scowl and stood on the mat with his arms slightly spread apart and his knees bent. As the chosen student approached him, he let out a screech and performed a series of flowing motions with his hands. Then he made fists and screamed again, the cords standing out on his neck, veins popping from his forehead. The student’s rush was always halfhearted. Daddy merely stepped forward and with another shrill scream slapped the student to the mat. The student, suffused by gratitude for not having had his spine broken, scrambled to his knees and bowed deeply. One day a thin Japanese man came to observe a class. When Daddy let out his first scream, the man began to chuckle. The wild kung fu arm-and-hand motions made him burst into laughter, and Daddy’s lightning quick defense against the trembling student actually sent him into hysterics. He bent over, in tears of laughter, holding his stomach. Daddy turned to him and asked what was so amusing about the Black Dragon form of Shaolin. The man bowed and said that he would be grateful for the chance to spar with the Sifu. After a few moments of tense silence Daddy said he would accept the challenge, but to make the contest interesting he proposed one of the following: they would both leap off the roof of the School (a four story building) onto a wooden platform with nails sticking up from it; or they would lie on the ground and let a student drive a jeep over their chests; or they would have a block of stone placed on their heads and shattered by sledgehammer. The one who survived the ordeal would win. The Japanese man smiled, bowed, said, No thank you, and left without another word. The students buzzed with joy: Sifu had proven once and for all that Black Dragon Kung Fu was superior to Okinawa Karate. After three weeks Daddy shut down the Black Dragon Shaolin Kung Fu School, taking with him the two years’ tuition, and all the gifts and donations offered by his adoring students. He left a note, written in calligraphic hand on rice paper, saying that he had gone to the Mojave Desert to study sorcery with Don Juan.
We drove all night and by the time dawn stepped rosy armed from the desert we were crossing into Mexico and we stopped the car a few hours later and slept in it by the roadside and when I opened my eyes I saw a little girl leading a burro on it a one-armed man in a white shirt and white pants was sitting his bare feet brushing the dust as they clip clopped past and I woke Daddy but he blinked and said to let him sleep the sun drenched everything and nothing I walked away from the car and pissed on a cactus. I stood there and watched a pale scorpion skitter away from under a rock and letting the cool air kiss my penis.
And in Juarez we stayed in a motel with palm trees out front and Daddy went into town and came back with bags of food he pulled the shades he stripped down to his underpants he slept snoring on the double bed there was no tv I walked out into the desert counting jackrabbits as they bounded away in springing leaps their long legs dangling before they thumped down like cats bounding off in another direction. Jaurez I remembered was where Daddy said he’d gotten the divorce from my mother
That night we ate in a roadside bar and Daddy made phone calls he said life was looking up for us again and we drove to Mexico City up a gravel driveway to a mansion my clothes were dusty a maid came down and told us to go right to the guest house and clean up so we did amazed at the luxury of fruit heaped on a silver platter the crackling linen sheets the tiled shower stall with gleaming copper fixtures
We ate dinner with a woman draped in jewels most of them small diamonds set in bracelets and ear-rings and a distinguished looking older gentleman with a pointed gray beard and Daddy talked about his desire to build his Mind Heart Liberation Center of Unity, Health Truth and Salvation. It would not be a church he said but a kind of commune or if you like an ashram. An ashram for the new age. The lenses of his thick glasses flashing his big hands moving in space as if weaving a great tapestry of God He quoted the Bhagavad-Gita Jesus and Mary Baker Eddy and Krishnamurti and C. G. Jung then he and the woman had a discussion about the I Ching and Zen. We sat up late on soft cushions by the crackling pinon fire until two in the morning Daddy more and more exciting and talking with passion and authority as if charming snakes. I saw the woman looking amazed at him and when she looked at me her eyes showed tenderness and once as Daddy raged she reached over and clasped my hand in hers.
In the morning we drove away from Mexico City in a pall of rain blue rain that cleared by noon and Daddy was humming and in the backseat sat a brown briefcase with shiny clasps
At the border crossing he had nothing to declare he said he was on business for the Sacred Jesus Church and Inter-Faith Temple of Sublime Mercy and Salvation. We drove north through drifting sheets of rain and shining desert. We pulled into the square of a small adobe town and looked at the Spanish mission church and Daddy said here’s where we would have lunch. We ate well in a restaurant with a beaded curtain to the blazing hot street beans and tortillas and sopapillas and green chiles and blue corn. I drank two cups of black coffee and Daddy drank one. Then we drove out of town through the desert to a steep mountain crowned thick with oaks and pine trees and drove up a dirt road to a grassy meadow on which sat a trailer and a rusted VW bus and the burnt skeleton of a teepee. It was cool in the meadow with the wind blowing through the pines and wind chimes were tinkling and I could hear a rushing stream. Daddy knocked on the door of the trailer and an Indian opened it. He was a brown expressionless Indian in shorts a loose shirt and sandals. I walked off toward the sound of the stream and found it clattering over stones under the windswept pines and I sat down on the grassy bank and yanked off my boots stinking of sweat and leather and peeled off the socks and plunged my bare feet into the shocking clear cold. I let my mind go and lay back on the prickling grass with my feet in the churning water. I heard the wind chimes and then after a long time the screen door of the trailer slap open and I heard Daddy calling. I shouted, Coming daddy. I picked up my boots with the socks stuffed in them and walked across the warm grass to the trailer. He was standing outside it with the Indian and they shook hands. When the Indian smiled I saw he had a gold tooth. Daddy said Come on boy. He was holding the briefcase. He threw it in the backseat and I got into the car on the passenger side, the leather hot against my legs. We drove bouncing down the dirt road. He slapped my leg. Are you happy?
We baptized it on a Sunday in autumn the Church of Sublime Revelations of the Sacred Lamb, with the Universal Meditation Center for Faith and Peace attached. Daddy stood at the pulpit wearing dungarees and a dungaree jacket and holding his thick leather bound King James Bible a frayed red ribbon dangling from it. He looked up as if to see through the pine rafters still oozing summer sap to the bell tower in which the day before we had rope-and-pulley hoisted an old scarred cast iron bell. He licked his thumb and opened the heavy book with a thump. He read into the silence a scripture with the words calumny evil and fire and then he spoke of the Gospel as a seed or an acorn. We would water that seed here on our mountain and it would surely flourish into a mighty oak. He said that he had seen Babylon he had seen Rome he had tasted of the flesh pots and nothing compared to the gentle goodness of the rich honey flowing from the mouth of the Lamb. I sat in a back pew with my head lowered shocked to hear these words from daddy’s mouth. He began to writhe a little as he worked himself up to a thunderous climax, his glasses lenses flashing, his mouth contorted as he gnawed his moustache. He said that he would teach us to hear the words of Jesus as we had never heard them before. Then he said some words in Spanish and I heard murmurs of approbation from the bowed Mexicans both men and women. Daddy shut his Book with a bang that sent dust motes scattering and said we would now sing a hymn from the red hymnal and I heard the scrape of feet and the shuffling of pages. I stayed sitting still with my forehead pressed lightly to the gummy pine edge of the pew in front as congregation began to sing liltingly Leaning on Jesus, Leaning on Jesus . . .
The bell clanked following the service. A little Mexican boy had been sent up to ring the bell. I stood below and saw him tugging at it, grinning like a fool and grabbing his ears each time the clapper struck. We all stood around in the grassy meadow around the stone church with its white-painted pine-wood bell tower, Daddy holding his Book and shaking hands and when any child was brought over to him he touched his palm to the crown of the child’s head and shut his eyes. His lips moving silently under the black moustache. Then the black-clad Mexicans piled into their cars and trucks and drove off in a cloud of dust and I noted that the people remaining wore a motley of Indian blankets jeans tye-dyed t-shirts sandals and peasant skirts. I heard Daddy say that in one hour there would be a meditation meeting in the big teepee and all would be welcome.
I walked into the woods and sat on the grass by the stream feeling dull and empty and a little sordid. I thought if I listened to the clattering-rushing sound of the stream it would clear my mind and I might feel whole again. Wash off me the blood and dirt of the Lamb, oh blessed stream. Daddy’s grandfather had been a preacher in West Virginia and he had grown up with those biblical phrases but never before today had I heard him utter the word Jesus with that type of fervor. I wondered if I should feel proud of him for this performance. Then I wondered if it really was a performance or if he had gotten himself lightning struck by the Holy Ghost since yesterday when he’d provoked laughter by remarking to us as he wiped the last beans from his tin plate with a tortilla that a God who would let himself be crucified was far less interesting to his mind than Lord Krishna multiplying to copulate with a thousand milkmaids on the banks of the Ganges.
Senora Luisa Cruz walked down the driveway to the gate in a canary yellow pantsuit wearing bright rings and a heavy silver and turquoise necklace I stood there clutching my hat in my hands dusty as a wheat field the briefcase at my feet I saw her eyes the clear water-blue I’d had hitch-hiked alone from Juarez through the visionary desert shimmering with sky she looked at my dirty jeans my soiled shirt the briefcase I looked at her biting my silent tongue She opened her purse she said here is money take it Go to the address I’ve written for you here and give them the briefcase and ask them politely to let your father go free Do not plead If they refuse offer them this money and remember to smile and be polite That is all I can do for you She turned and walked crunching back up the gravel driveway to the mansion and its palm trees I stuffed the money into my underwear without looking at it and turned and walked downhill the briefcase banging my thigh I did not hail a taxi until I reached the big square and then I gave the driver the slip of paper I sat back on the straw seat my head bounced the roof as we went over dirt and stones I shut my eyes I felt I would be sick and that I had to defecate
Senora Luisa Cruz had written the address of a plain house I paid the driver too much and walked up to it holding the case under my arm feeling the wad of money in my underpants I jangled the bell beside the door and the door opened and a small woman wearing a black shawl opened it I said I had come for my daddy She stepped aside and I went in down a hallway I heard her bare feet padding behind me We emerged into a courtyard in naked light and a man stood up from a wicker chair I put down the briefcase at his feet He said Please sit He said Maria bring this boy a soft drink I sat on a wicker chair and watched as the man set down his smoking cigar in an ash tray and set the case on an oaken table on which stood bottles and a bowl of fruit He slid open the clasps and looked inside then he shut it and Maria placed a cold sweating bottle into my hand I tasted it Orange Crush
And now the man who was dressed nicely in trousers and a white shirt with a slim brown belt and polished brown penny loafers sat down and crossing his legs resumed smoking the cigar He said in English your father is not here I looked at him He said I do not know what to do next to conclude this business you know your daddy he has caused many problems Yes, I said, I know and I am sorry He smiled showing a gold capped tooth You are a polite boy he said in his purring English with a sad shake of the head I am sorry that you have to be sorry for the problems he has invented but you are of course flesh and blood of his He blew out cigar smoke I drank my Orange Crush down to the bottom and Maria’s brown hand appeared I gave it the bottle I felt the cool smoothness of the fingers Sweating now I said that I would be willing to offer him some extra money for all his trouble He looked at me I thought coldly We will take a ride now he said Later we will discuss money
The man stood up and smoothed his trousers He picked up the briefcase and said please wait a moment and he walked out of the room I heard his loafers clacking away on the tiles I looked over at Maria she was appraising me with a direct cool gaze and I felt my despair change to defiance She sat primly in a chair in the corner with the black shawl draped on her shoulders I saw suddenly she was younger than I had assumed and we looked at each other I felt the pulse beating in dry lips You are brave, she said suddenly and I smiled But now the man came back into the room Maria and I both stood He said We will go and to Maria Put on your boots we may have to walk a little
His red Ford pick up truck gleaming was parked behind the house where chickens darted and scrabbled and Maria slid onto the seat next to the man I slid in beside her and shut the door and we drove off bouncing on the dirt streets I lost all sense of direction north south east or west until I saw the volcano and I thought I knew where I was but then night came and we were in the country My stomach hurt with hunger The man drove without speaking smoking his cigars Maria was prim and still
I fell asleep my cheek bouncing against the glass I woke with a jump We were parked outside a low building Maria rubbed my thumb in her hand We went in and sat at a table A jukebox blast
We drank coffee and ate eggs and beans with bits of tortilla crumbled in the scrambled eggs and the man ordered tequila He set the small bluish glass in front of me Drink it I drank throwing my head back and making a face he and Maria laughed We went out into the cold to the truck again and got in
It was another few hours Maria fell asleep with her head light on my shoulder Headlights drifting on the empty asphalt
He parked the truck suddenly under a clump of cottonwoods and said Come he walked ahead beaming a flashlight and Maria and I followed him jumping over ruts and stumbling a little on loose stones Ahead was a stone house in a field and lights shining in the windows Wait here the man said and went in I stood near Maria I heard shuffling steps nearby then a sound I knew was horses cropping grass and I had a strange thrill of joy as if the presence of horses might save my life
When the man emerged he was with a shorter mexican bow-legged and slicked hair he said This is Miguel and I saw Miguel was carrying a machete and I saw the heavy black grip of a pistol stuck in his belt Come with us the man said Not you Maria just him I felt a pang but I did not glance back We walked off into the field it was so dark I couldn’t see any horses At each step my boots sank into the dry earth When I stumbled and almost fell the man’s arm darted out and he caught me Miguel plodded ahead
We stopped by a tree where it smelled bad and the man said So now give me your money and I reached into my underwear and pulled out the slightly damp wad of cash I saw the man’s smile in the dark Miguel was now holding the flashlight shining it on the money as the man counted it He made a satisfied click of tongue on teeth and stuck it into his back pocket Then he said your father he is in the house back there He is a little in bad shape but he can still live if he is taken to a doctor but now I have a minor question for you
I waited Miguel shifted the flashlight shining it at the ground
Something I must show you first the man said and the beam of the flashlight moved a few feet and it shone into a ditch or no it was a grave Look the man said and I looked down and saw in it bones and tatters of cloth and flesh and I realized the stench I had been smelling was from down there in the soft dirt
Next to the grave the flashlight beam showed me a heap of earth and a spade I felt a pang at the thought of Maria and the horses cropping grass
This will be nothing he said
Will it be the machete or the pistol I give you this choice I am sorry he went on It is not personal against you but we must teach your father something about the world If you are religious perhaps you would like to pray to your God
I knelt not to be religious but because my legs had gone lifeless and I put my face in my clasped hands not to pray but to concentrate hard and if I had tried to pray I would have prayed not to fill my underwear with searing shit I said Pistol and I heard the machete drop to the earth with a sense of relief almost like bliss I had been terrified by that machete by the thought of having my neck sliced like a melon and I listened very closely to hear Miguel cocking the pistol but for a long time I heard nothing but Miguel’s breathing then rapid footsteps and the man said Maria I heard a little scuffle Maria speaking in a fast whispering Spanish The man said All right Miguel put it away Then his hand on my shoulder Stand up I tried a few times and kept falling to my knees He’s shit himself Miguel said Well the man said So would you or me or anyone And both men laughed Maria was holding me about the waist A cock crowed exploding the darkness like a stick of dynamite As we approached the house the sun was rising a great disk of gold
No Maria said your father is not here but he is in a jail in town we will go to get him later don’t worry he is being well cared for She was washing my face I felt her cool arms on my lips You are a brave boy she said I sat up I was lying on a dirty cot in Miguel’s house I could hear Miguel and the man outside on the porch talking and laughing My mouth felt dirty I stank Maria had taken my clothes including the soiled underpants to wash them and she said it would take a few hours for them to dry in the sun
Then she said do you know I am a witch I told them I had looked in the dregs of the coffee and saw it was not your time It is true she said then when I kept smiling she showed me a tin mug coffee grounds smeared at the bottom and she looked into my eyes the reflected light shining in her pupils and I shivered Maria said I told them if they killed you I would make a spell using tequila and crushed glass I would cut a rooster’s throat and mix the blood into tequila and then drink it with crushed glass and the splinters of glass would go into their stomachs and they would die slowly like poisoned dogs Can you really do that? I asked and Maria shrugged she said Of course
Do you know why I saved you she said and I shook my head She said I saw your defiance and then I saw the earth and the sky in you and I saw that you were ALIVE I kissed Maria then stabbing her open mouth with my tongue Oh she said She got up from the edge of the cot and latched the rickety door then came quickly back and stood by breathing fast it dropping the shawl unbuttoning the black dress I saw her thin ribs the big-nippled breasts the tuft of silky black hair I held the dirty sweat-stinking blanket aside and she slid in Her skin smooth and hot reeking of death and emptiness and dust and defecation
She smoothed back my hair with both hands Oh my proud sad son she said Oh my little one nino nino
And there shall be much wailing and gnashing of teeth I said And the sour grapes shall set your children’s teeth on edge I do not know what inspired me Crazy little one she said kissing my eyes with her searing dry lips
Maria held my hands both in hers The shawl draped on her thin shoulders like a crow’s dusty wings We bounced on the spring seat with the motion of the truck The man drove smoking his cigar as if in careful thought We pulled up at a roadside chapel of tin and cardboard and bunches of fresh cut flowers and Maria said We go in for a moment I followed her in making the sign of the cross as she did And dipping my thumb and finger in a plastic bowl that held Holy Water
Inside the crude chapel were two women kneeling heads bowed covered by Indian shawls It smelled of incense We both knelt in the dimness Looking up at the altar I saw a crude skeleton a grinning skull face yellow molars gaping eye sockets Draped in a saucy velvet cloak covered with trinkets for offerings A sombrero on her head Bony fingers holding cigarettes between them A bottle of tequila at her skeleton feet Each toe wearing silver and turquoise rings
Maria lowered her head to the floor Then raising her head she crossed herself Pursed her beautiful lips
Maria said We must offer La Santisima Muerte something Do you have your money I shook my head She said Go and get it now I walked outside the man was leaning against the truck studying his loafers A cigar smoking in his brown fingers He showed the gold capped tooth in a grin I held out my hand without speaking Our eyes met for a moment and he lowered his gaze shaking his head ruefully and took the wad of bills from his back pocket and peeled off half and put them in my hand
I went back inside the chapel and knelt beside Maria I held the money out to her she said Offer some of it to La Santisima Muerte for thanksgiving that you are alive and for future luck She is my patron saint and now I think yours too And so I peeled off two of the hundred dollar bills and placed them under the bottle of tequila and Maria said Buena Then you must drink the health of La Santisima and so I picked up the bottle unscrewed the cap and throwing my head back took a long searing drink that brought tears to my eyes and I put the bottle down again coughing I watched as Maria lit two votive candles placing them at the feet of the gaudy skeleton she bowed her head deeply so did I and then we left the shack dipping our fingers again in the holy water making the sign of the Cross
We were standing on a hot dry street and the man got into the truck Maria said now I will take you to your father and she led me up a narrow alley as the man turned the truck around and drove off bumping on the dirt road chickens scattering from the wheels After walking for a few minutes we came to a pink painted building with iron balconies like I had seen in the French Quarter of New Orleans There was a bar café on the bottom floor She said Go upstairs I will wait here I climbed a creaking set of stairs sweating all over and knocked on a door and an old woman with red hair opened it a crack and looked at me with watering eyes then motioned me inside
And he was there sitting on a plastic-wrapped sofa His face bruised one eye swollen like a plum Wearing a t-shirt streaked with dry blood His eyes widened as if seeing a spirit He stood up weeping and embraced me to his fat sweating body Where are your glasses I said and then tried to ask the old woman in Spanish I pointed to my eyes She nodded and went out of the room and came back in a moment holding them out to me Daddy had been watching a soap opera on TV voices chattering in Spanish and a woman in tears tugging on a man’s gold ring I wiped the glasses on the tail of my shirt and gave them to Daddy he put them on over the bruises and the swollen eye We’re going I said He looked at me tears streaming out of his good eye Come on I took his hand and led him downstairs Adios said the old woman to our backs and I shaky with anger shouted up the dim staircase
Go fuck yourself cunt
Maria was drinking a bottle of lemon soda She offered us some Daddy took a long drink but I shook my head She said Go now to the bus station Do not come back to mexico Then she seized both my hands and turning them palm up lowered her head and kissed the palms You are also a saint of mine now A saint of life do you understand? I smiled Adios she said
I turned back at the end of the street and saw her still sitting at her table by the window of the bar café wrapped in her black lace shawl under the charging black bull on the advertisement for Toro Tequila