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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories

A Religious Experience
Tetsuhiko Endo

The 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. It’s 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 church’s 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…what’s this? 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 weren’t looking carefully, you wouldn’t 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, isn’t 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?"
Well…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 wasn’t 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 woman’s 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 didn’t know where she and her son would sleep that night. You wouldn’t have heard about how she didn’t 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 child’s laughter.
After Tag came Hide and Seek, then Follow the Leader.
"Quiero un avión."
Yes…and I want a beer, but these things tend to be a little more complicated than that. Wait…a what?…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, you’ve got to cross your own barriers in order to provide it. Even if they haven’t 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 wasn’t 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 I’ve never seen a happier passenger than Smelly Mike. You could have bought him a real plane ticket and he wouldn’t 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. Keep’em 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 didn’t 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! It’s Jesus!"
I followed Maicol’s 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! It’s Jesus."

I took a good look at the little stone man and he stared right back. I hadn’t 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, half shrug.
"Well, Maicol, if you’re 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.
"It’s 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 Peter’s, Sevilla, St. Patrick’s, 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.

"My God…my God…" 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 don’t 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.
"We’re 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.
"Fr…friends? Umm…Of course we are friends!" He grinned as if I had promised him a lifetime supply of airplane rides. I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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 isn’t your thing: best find yourself a boat and grab hold of something sturdy. Don’t 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 won’t 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.
"I’ve 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, I’ll 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 weren’t as lucky.

©  Tetsuhiko Endo November 2008

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