International Writers Magazine: Life Stories
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was glowing quietly in the
clear night exuding a certain sense of holy tranquillity. Spotlights
in just the right places made the bricks and mortar look like they
actually radiated their own soft luminescence. Its a nice
effect, that, both pacifying and awe inspiring, like a stern mother
posted up on the corner watching over the comings and goings.
The white mortar
dome of the churchs bell tower was sprinkled with cold winter
stars that peered down on the neighbourhood through wispy clouds. Beneath
the twisted, bare branches of the Plane trees, people moved this way
and that like ants in choreographed insignificance. Things were mostly
in order that Friday night: No kids begging in front of McDonalds three
blocks away, no-one juggling in the intersections, no-one break dancing
for loose change in front of the mall across the street. It was just
people from the neighbourhood well dressed families going to
the movies, lovers out for a stroll, old women shuffling down the side
walks confident in their belief that the end of their days was the end
of all days and happily reminiscing about how things had been in the
good old days. However, if you looked closely
may have noticed a mother and her young son on the steps of the church,
not going in or leaving, just hanging out, eyes lowered and shoulders
slumped as if buttressing part of the large arch that greeted people
entering for Friday mass. Set against a backdrop of clean, bright, city
colours, They were both jarringly earth-toned chiarascurro browns
like two faded stains on the bricks. As people passed dressed in crisp,
tasteful European fashions, the woman would materialize out of the background
for just long enough to put out her hand, be ignored and recede back
into the stone so that if you werent looking carefully, you wouldnt
have notice her at all.
You may also have noticed my colleagues and I approaching from down
the block. Two men and a woman Alejandro, Jimena and me. I was
the one with a little spring in my step, already anticipating that first
beer of the weekend watery Uruguayan swill to be sure, but still
better than the whisky by a country mile or gaucho kilometre, as it
were. We were still too far away to see the mother and son, but from
the bell tower, you might have inferred that our paths would intersect.
And intersect they did as we crossed the small plaza in front of the
church. The woman noticed us first but dropped her gaze quickly, as
if embarrassed or angry. My colleague, Alejandro was not so easily dissuaded.
"Hey, isnt that
" he trailed off as we slowed our
walk to try and get a better look at the woman and young boy. "It
is. That is Mrs. Navarro we have worked with a lot of her kids.
Should we go have a chat?"
why not? With alcohol being my only excuse to protest, I clamped
my mouth shut and walked over to greet her. She introduced us to the
youngest of her three or four kids, Maicol. Maicol was five years old
and the happiest little piss-drenched person I have ever met.
"He wet himself an hour ago," His mother explained.
Judging by the smell, it wasnt the first time either, but who
knows? No one was keeping track. Through silent understanding, my colleagues
and I divided up the duties so it was picture drawing time for me and
Stinky Maicol while Alejandro went into the Sacred Heart to get some
clean clothes. Jimena talked with the mother, trying to figure out what
had brought her and her youngest out to the streets on a winter night
and what, if anything could be done about it. Hopes of alcohol grew
distant as I tried to decide what colour to make the doggy I was outlining.
Shortly after Alejandro left, the mother began to cry. Silent, angry
tears that she was embarrassed for us to see, embarrassed for her child
to see, spilled down her face. It reminded me of seeing my parents sob
when my aunt had died. My brother and I had looked on, perplexed, compounding
their pain with the uncomprehending indifference of youth. As her tears
increased, church goers filed in and out of the massive double doors
ignoring us as if this toothless, blubbering hag were just another statue
of the weeping Madonna. Jimena told me later that the womans boyfriend
had been beating her up again, so she took the kid and split. Given
the choice between beatings in a warm house and no beatings in the cold
street, her older kids had opted to stay home.
From the bell tower, high up in the heavens, you would not have heard
the woman sobbing, or the way she began to blubber and hyperventilate
when she talked about how she didnt know where she and her son
would sleep that night. You wouldnt have heard about how she didnt
know how to handle money and had never saved a penny in her life or
about how she gets beaten up regularly either. From that high, you would
have only seen small, insignificant people conversing as other small
people hurried past them into or out of the church. You would have also
seen two figures (that would be me and the boy) run into the plaza and
begin a game of tag. They crashed through bushes and wove between frowning
pedestrians. Even that high up, it may have been possible to hear the
clear ring of a childs laughter.
After Tag came Hide and Seek, then Follow the Leader.
"Quiero un avión."
and I want a beer, but these things tend to be a little more
complicated than that. Wait
oh, that kind of airplane.
Physical contact with extremely poor kids is a tricky business. Young
people who have been abused or spent time in the streets are not usually
touchy feely types. Short, vicious lives harden their spirits while
ravage their bodies; malnourishment makes them strangely fragile. If
they do yearn for physical contact, youve got to cross your own
barriers in order to provide it. Even if they havent pissed themselves
in the last 12 hours, there is usually a bit of ripeness to them and
a fine layer of grime that seems, through tricks of the imagination,
to be impregnated in their skin. Not that a kind, mature, God-fearing
person would even think about such things. Unfortunately for both Maicol
and I, those people were all inside the church at the time. Instinctively,
I knew that this wasnt one of those toe in the water, little by
little, ease your way in until you feel comfortable situations. It was
a belly flop off the high dive situation point your toes, cover
your balls and hope for the best.
I have piloted more than a couple of airplanes in 23 years, but Ive
never seen a happier passenger than Smelly Mike. You could have bought
him a real plane ticket and he wouldnt have enjoyed it half as
much as being twirled like an Olympic hammer. Around we spun, his damp
sweat pants leaving sour ammonia vapour trails in the air. As he laughed
and screamed I kept imagining both his tiny arms suddenly popping off
like Leggos as he went flying into the busy street.
"Flex those shoulders, Maicol. Keepem tight buddy."
"Una vez más!"
I spun him until we were both sitting on the ground willing the world
to stop spinning. Maicol toddled over and plopped himself down in my
lap. I was torn between putting an arm around him and pushing him away
in disgust. I really, really wished he were clean. I wished he were
well fed too, and didnt have a mom who was a few wrenches short
in the toolbox. I wished people would stop ignoring us and he would
stop laughing so damn much as if this were the happiest day of his life.
I wished he had siblings who cared and a father who held him and smiled
instead of hitting him. I wished that he were a different little boy
entirely and because that was unlikely to happen, I wished I could be
one hundred miles away so that I would never, ever suspect that a little
boy and his mother were lost in the streets. And as long as I was wishing
such selfless, heroic things, I wanted a beer and a few strong shots
of tequila to help me forget what I had seen. Sitting there, wishing,
I stared up at the bell tower, miles and miles away, glowing serenely,
cleanly. From up there, it would have been easy to be supremely unconcerned
with what was happening down below.
"Look! Its Jesus!"
I followed Maicols stubby finger to a point about a third of the
way up the façade where a stone statue smiled down on the plaza
with outstretched arms.
"I think that might be a saint,"
"No! Its Jesus."
I took a good look at the little stone man and he stared right back.
I hadnt prayed since I was about eight years old and now seemed
like the wrong time to get back into the habit. He looked at me blissfully
with palms opened towards heaven in an expression that was half benediction,
"Well, Maicol, if youre so sure. Who is Jesus then?"
I asked, mostly out of curiosity regarding what he might say.
He considered me like a particularly tiresome sort of person.
"Its him." He said, pointing right back up at the statue.
People who smelled of deodorant and fabric softener continued to walk
past us casting furtive, guilty glances in our direction. As they entered
the church, the heavy wooden doors would open to reveal bright, fleeting
flashes of the opulent sanctuary Gold and silver glowing in the
light of big, melted candles, people sitting hunched in silent prayer,
dark hardwood pughes, eternally suffering icons looking on from the
walls like adolescents at a wedding then swing closed and snatch
the scene away. At that moment, I would have liked to go inside. Why
not? I had walked into churches and cathedrals all over the world: St
Peters, Sevilla, St. Patricks, Toledo. But the Sacred Heart
felt closed to me, its glowing warmth a barrier designed to ward off
those unfit to escape the grip of the deepening cold.
" This was the moment to drop to
my knees and rail at the firmament in righteous indignation. I glared
up at Buddy Christ but found that all my strength and resolve had dried
up and poured out. It was replaced by something bitterer, colder and
altogether more familiar. Jesus just shrugged like, "What did you
expect, kid?" And he was right: I jumped his ship long ago like
a rat in a hurricane and never looked back. The problem with mutiny
is that you dont get to pop back around for tea and foot rubs
when things get a little heavy on the outer limits of pandemonium. No
sir, you get the divine shrug and maybe a snorkel to help you out as
the waves grow larger and the wind begins to howl. Meanwhile the devout
sail on toward the horizon smiling contentedly, sipping their sacramental
wine and you, are, on, your, own, kid.
Round about then, Alejandro came back shaking his head. Inside, he had
introduced himself as a street educator, showed the rector his ID and
explained the situation of the mother and child. After considering the
information, the man had told him with the politeness and impeccable
tact of a kind, mature, god-fearing person, to go fuck himself.
"Were friends right?" Stinky Maicol tugged at my hand
while Alejandro and Jimena whipped out their cell-phones to start calling
shelters that might be able to house the mother and child.
Of course we are friends!" He grinned
as if I had promised him a lifetime supply of airplane rides. Ive
had girlfriends look at me less adoringly.
"Aaaaammmmiiiigoooo!" he jumped into my arms. On instinct,
I caught him in front of me, a little abruptly, and held him at a distance.
We considered each other. He was a pungent pile of dirty rags with an
absurd smile emerging from it. I was struck by the absurdity of this
situation: the mutineer helping the cast away stay afloat through the
storm. We might weather this one, amigo, but another squall is already
brewing out there in the darkness and another one after that, and, well,
another after that
I wouldnt worry too much though, the sharks
will probably get you first. My arms felt tired, my legs leaden. There
would come a time when I would have to decide between me and him and
that was really no decision at all.
The strong stay afloat and the weak sink to the bottom until the water
is littered with their bodies. If swimming isnt your thing: best
find yourself a boat and grab hold of something sturdy. Dont spend
too much time looking down at the water, just steal the occasional furtive
glance. Stare too long and you might just notice things floating below
the surface, kicking and stroking like hell, wriggling desperately through
inert bodies tangled together like sea weed, struggling to break into
the air, striving for the surface but never quite making it and screaming
out silently in long chains of bubbles. You wont forget that kind
of thing even though you would very much like to. Among other things,
it will most certainly ruin your Friday night.
We found them a place to stay that was sort of clean, sort of warm,
and maybe served a bit of food. It was like throwing water wings to
two people stuck in a whirl-pool. Then, we said our goodbyes. Job done,
time to punch the clock and head home to warm houses, hot dinners, soft
beds, friends, families.
"Are you leaving?" Maicol looked at me like "leaving"
was not something that a friend did.
"Ive got to go, buddy, so take care of yourself and take
care of your mom."
Stinky Mike straightened up and squared his shoulders, nodding seriously
as if taking orders from a commanding officer.
"Hopefully, Ill see you soon," I said, lying because
it was the only acceptable option.
"Hasta pronto, amigo."
I gave him a hug.
"Hasta pronto, amigo."
When I got home, I stayed in the shower and scrubbed till the water
ran cold and my skin went numb. Then I went to the bar and swilled Cuba
Libres until my face went numb. Sometimes there is no up side
no way to spin something positive. But there is always rum. Adrift on
hostile seas, when faith and love and hope and even God are in short
supply, rum will keep you afloat. Yo, ho, ho. Drink up, my friend, then
raise your glass high: a toast to all those who werent as lucky.
Endo November 2008
the Craic in Ireland
Busdrivers in Uruguay
stories from life
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