|The Power of Saints
My father's four tiny dots on his left temple remind me of stars forming the Little Dipper cup. They are tatoos from his gang days and they glow indigo on his dark skin, make his face seem refined, like an Aztec king. People used to say I looked like him and it made me proud.
When he told me stories of his turf battles in Mendota, California, it was always a lesson in courage and the defense of honor. "Always pay back double every insult to you or your family," he said. I loved those stories. It was like the Wild West. When he spoke, I saw moonlight reflecting off a knife blade or the barrel of a gun.
One night he sat on my bed, his pockets bulging with money, and the moon shining on his face. He told me how he had to beat someone up. When I asked why, he said, "That's my job, son, sometimes people steal and cheat in the casino and we have to beat them up so they learn a lesson." He slammed his right fist in the palm of his other hand making the snake on his forearm wiggle. On his other arm was a tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It was like his body was bisected with evil on one side and good on the other.
I felt safe knowing my father did all that. My friends used to stare at me with big eyes when I told them about him. I was getting a lot of attention with my stories, even for Vegas, where weirdness was normal.
I was twelve and we were living in an apartment on the East side of town: just me, my mother, my father and his friend Dave. We were doing all right; my father had a good job in security at one of the new casinos. He walked around with five hundred dollars in his pocket saying he got the money from tips. But my mother said he used it for gambling, that he had an addiction. Anyway, it made me feel good, like we had plenty of money. I was too young and stupid to put it all together. If we had enough money, why were we living in a one bedroom apartment with my father's friend?
Everyone in Vegas is from somewhere else and it all started for my family in Mendota, a small, dusty town in Central California. I got my green eyes from my mother. She's white, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister. She told me about charismatic services, her father whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and everyone jumping up babbling shit saying God was talking through them.
My father's from a family of Mexican farm workers. They were all a little whacked. One Halloween my uncles got drunk, dug up a corpse, and put it on the hood of their truck. They dumped it in front of my preacher grandfather's church when he was having one of his Holy Roller services. They said it was proof he could resurrect the dead and laughed like maniacs. By the time my father and his cousins were fifteen they were all in gangs, in and out of juvy for GTAs, assaults, and robbery. Except my father. He said he would've been there too if it hadn't been for my mother. He tried to leave that life for us.
But everything changed when he got shot. I think he got too cocky. He must have thought he could never go down. One night after work three Gs were waiting for him with guns. I was looking out my window and saw them standing around him. They told Dad to give them the car keys. He just kept walking up to the door of our apartment. They said something like, "Give us the keys or we'll shoot your fuckin head off." Unbelievably, he still kept walking away. In one second one of them pointed a revolver and shot him three times in the legs. He crumbled like a fallen angel and dropped the keys. He said he figured if they were going to jack his car they would have shot him anyway. I can still remember the way he looked, wriggling like a snake as he tried to drag himself to the front door.
One of the bullets blew out his knee so he couldn't go back to security work. My mother took a job as a waitress. That's when things got bad. We got along when I only saw him an hour or two at night. But when he was home all day he got nervous and edgy. I'd come home finding him smelling like beer, staring out the window, holding a cigarette with an inch long ash. Sometimes strange men would be there when I got home, coming and going at all hours. He started fights with my mother.
"If you weren't so fat you'd make more tips," he told her one day when we were sitting at the table eating spaghetti. "You and the kid eat too much."
"You're the one who sits around eating." My mother meant to tease him, but when she looked up I could tell she knew she had made a big mistake.
His eyes burned and he clenched his hands. "I took good care of both of you before. Now look at us. Every week we're going backwards. Maybe you'd be better off without me." He shoved his plate away and stood up knocking his chair over. He went into the bedroom and made a call. All I could hear was, "I'll be there in five." He limped out favoring his injured leg and walked out the front door. He was gone from our life.
I started crying. "What's wrong with him? He acts like he hates us."
My mother stared at the chair turned on its side. "I don't know exactly," she said wiping her eyes. "I don't think it's us. I don't think he even knows what's wrong." She sighed and pushed her hair back from her forehead. I went to her and wrapped my arms around her shoulders, resting my cheek against hers.
The way she looked reminded me of a picture I'd seen of her and my father holding hands in front of my father's old Ford back in Mendota. He's wearing a gold cross which flashes against his white t- shirt. My mother's looking past him, distracted by something, or worried. Her light brown hair is blowing off her forehead and shoulders. There's a road behind them through a vineyard going straight back until it's only a speck on the horizon. I wondered if she knew it would end here.
Mom met me at school the next day. She had some bags packed in the back of the car. "We have to leave here. It isn't safe. I don't know what's going on, but men have been coming by and calling. The police were at the apartment asking questions about Dad." She glanced at me. We had already started an unspoken communication, as if by not actually saying the worst, it would not make it seem so bad.
We got on a flight to Phoenix, Arizona, where Mom heard there was work and the weather was about the same. But Phoenix was freezing that winter. I walked off the plane in shorts and a t-shirt. In fact, the only clothes I had were shorts and t-shirts. We passed through layers of subdivisions; adobe houses and square front yards filled with cactus. We were almost downtown when we found the Allegre Casitas, a motel with a bunch of recovering alcoholics. The walls were so thin we could smell cigarette smoke from the other side. "It's only for a while," Mom said as we sat on the bed watching TV, eating burgers and fries.
Later we heard that my father got busted for running a meth lab out in the desert. As bad as that seemed, it made me feel better to think he couldn't come see us, that it was impossible. But my mother didn't feel like that. After we found out she started looking at me differently, more worried.
Most of those guys at the motel were really cool. They all had little jobs maintaining the place and looked out for each other. Eddie was my favorite. He was big with huge biceps and a little flabby around the waist. Mom thought he was a biker because he wore his gray hair straight back in a braid. But he was a Yaqui from a reservation near Tucson. Then she thought he was OK and she didn't mind me hanging out with him. There wasn't anyone else around.
One day after school I saw him cleaning the pool. He smiled and waved. "I want to show you something." He held a small silver medal in his hand. "Do you know who this is?"
"The Virgin of Guadalupe," I said. I remembered the tattoo of her on my father's arm. "Why do you carry that around?"
"Come on in to my room. I'll tell you a story and you can tell me some stories about you."
Eddie had an amazing collection of miniature liquor bottles from his days as a road manager for a 70's band. He told me about being saved. "I made a vow to the Virgin of Guadalupe to deliver me from the sins of alcohol abuse," he said. He had a little shrine in a corner, next to the liquor bottles, with a plaster statue of her surrounded by candles in glass jars. She had copper skin like my father and green eyes like my mother and wore a beautiful robe studded with stars. She looked like she was wrapped in the heavens. "Since she helped me I have been on my knees before the Virgin in churches all over New Mexico and Arizona. Do you know anything about her?"
"My father told me she's special to Mexicans. But she isn't much help to him now. He's in prison."
Eddie spread his arms wide. "That's when he needs her the most." He put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. "You have to take care of your mother now. You need to know about how to ask help from the saints."
Eddie told me about the power of saints. I especially liked the martyrs. On weekend we visited Saint Lawrence, cooked on a grate by the Romans, and Saint Peter, crucified upside-down. We drove across Arizona to visit a shrine dedicated to Saint Rita. She's the saint of desperate cases. She held a skull in her palm like a polished apple and had a thorn jammed in her forehead with little drops of blood running down.
"I want to show you Saint Lucia." Eddie told me one day. "She is special. She will help you see."
On a rainy Saturday when my mother was working, we headed south to Tucson in Eddie's old Lincoln Continental. It was monsoon season. We drove in and out of squalls as lightening flashed around us. We could see the rain fall from patches of clouds ahead. A rosary hung from the rear view mirror and the cross swayed back and forth. Eddie told me about the legend of Saint Lucy.
"Lucy was a beautiful woman and she could have had any man. But she decided to give her life to God and remain a virgin." He looked at me and clawed at his eye. "She tore out her eyes to discourage any suitors. Then, miraculously, her eyes grew back, more beautiful than before." The wipers stuttered and whined and he looked forward.
"Why do you think I need to see Saint Lucy?" I thought the whole thing was spooky.
"The eyes are the windows to the soul," he told me peering hard into the rain. "That's why Saint Lucy is important. Your father isn't here for you, so you need someone to show you the way. The Virgin will help you, but Lucy will see you through the hard times in your life."
We stopped at a small beige cement-block building in the middle of a Mexican barrio. The statue stood on a platform about three feet high so she was looking down at me. She had long black hair, brown glass eyes and wore a green robe trimmed with gold. In her left hand, she tipped a white plate down that held her eyeballs. I couldn't take my eyes off them. They even had red-painted blood vessels and ligaments attached. Little silver and gold sets of eyes hung around her neck on ribbons and strings. Eddie said they were put there by people who believed in Saint Lucy's power. "Look at her new eyes," he said. He pointed up to her face. "She looks sad, but not melancholy. That's because she knows she can't change things, but she can help you see." He asked her for guidance and so did I. About the best thing I could imagine were Mom and Eddie getting together.
We got home late and Mom was sitting in a plastic chair in front of our room waiting for me. She frowned when I told her about our trip. How I prayed to Saint Lucy for us. I showed her a picture of Saint Lucy holding her eyes.
"Lots of voodoo shit." She said. "It'll just give you nightmares." She looked toward Eddie's room. " Praying isn't helping us survive. "
"But Eddie told me he prayed to the Virgin and she helped him stop drinking," I said.
My mother stood up and the neon vacancy sign lit her face. "I'll tell you what cured Eddie, the fear of death. He's got diabetes. If he drinks, he dies." She looked around at the motel with its faded brown paint and shook her head. "Look at this place."
I cried when I said goodbye to Eddie. He hugged me and placed a medal of Saint Lucy around my neck. "Remember to ask for guidance but don't ask to change something that is meant to be. Learn to share your pain. Don't hold it in, but don't turn it into rage. Talk to the saints."
Mom finally found a little house on the edge of town with two bedrooms and a yard. I got a dog and we inherited ten cats from the last renters. It was next to open desert which seemed to go on forever. At night we heard cries of hunters and the hunted, coyotes usually, and the screams of their prey. Sometimes I found blood on our porch and every morning I counted all the cats to make sure they were still around. But I felt safe. We were fine, I thought, just the two of us.
My mother had to work two jobs so I was alone a lot. I wandered around with my dog scattering quail, looking for snakes, lizards and rabbits in the desert behind us. I thought Saint Lucy was looking out for me. I tried to take care of things. I made dinner for myself and waited for my mother. She was working at a factory during the day and cleaned offices until nine or ten. She was tired when she got home and didn't want to talk much. She usually fell asleep on the couch. I watched over her and studied her carefully. She looked peaceful and still except for the throbbing vein just visible by her left eye. I was scared. I knew something was wrong.
About two months later Mom met Sal at the race track. The first time I saw him I sucked in my breath. He looked like my dad. It was his eyes. I could see through them. I told my mother we didn't need him. We were doing fine. I could take care of her. I tried to talk to her. "I'm afraid for us," I told her. "He'll hurt you, and then he'll leave."
"You can't know that. Where did you get these ideas?"
"I can see it. Listen to me." I thought it was Saint Lucy helping, but I didn't tell her that.
"Sal can help us Robert. He's not going to hurt us. He'll make it easier. You've got to try harder for me. I can't do it alone." She choked and put her hands over her mouth. She looked so sad and tired. The lines around her eyes which usually crinkled when she smiled just pulled her face down. I vowed to try harder even though I thought Sal was an idiot.
But it didn't work out. Sal was jumpy and everything I said bothered him. I started getting into trouble in school. I fought with everyone, pounding my fists into their faces and chests. Our cats disappeared and coyotes lured our dogs into the brush. They came back torn and bleeding or not at all.
One night Sal called my mother lazy when she didn't want to get off the couch to make dinner for him. I said, "Don't talk to her like that. You're living in our house and you're not even helping out."
Sal turned toward me. His mouth was turned up on one side. "Who you think you're talking to?" He reached out and pushed me in the chest so hard I fell back on the couch on my mother.
She started crying, "Robert can't you just shut up? You're only making things worse."
I looked at them, seeing how it was. She was worried about herself. I wasn't the most important person to her. She was choosing him, almost a stranger. She was looking at him, trying to see his reaction. I had seen that expression before, the night my father left. I wasn't enough for her. "You're pathetic," I said. "What's he going to do for you?"
I ran out the door into the darkness not knowing where I was going. The moon lit the way. I kept stumbling over cactus and weeds until I fell down and crawled on my hands and knees like an animal. I found an abandoned car with all the windows broken and the doors hanging open. I climbed in and curled up on the front seat panting hard, trying to make myself small. The Little Dipper shone above, reminding me of my father. I hated him for doing this to me. I squeezed my eyes shut and I was praying, calling out to all the saints I knew.
After awhile I heard the noises. They were all around but not the animal screams from before. I knew exactly what I was hearing, pack-rats on the floor of the car, coyotes and foxes outside. It was like I had the power to see into the night and concentrate on each sound. I kept seeing a familiar road going back. And as it became clearer, I saw that it was the road from the old photograph of my parents. It was the road behind them. Saint Lucy was helping me see. I knew I was going away.
My mother saw me the next day. I walked out of the room when she tried to talk to me. There was no place for me here. She told me she was sending me to Mendota to stay with my grandmother.
"It's not my fault it turned out like this," she said, standing in the doorway with her hand on her forehead. "You don't understand. I told you I couldn't handle it on my own. It's your father who left. Why don't you blame him?"
"He couldn't help what happened. He'd be here if he could."
"No, Robert . . . Why did he get shot in the first place?"
At the bus station she said, "When you get older you can come back. You'll see things differently. You can visit anytime." She turned away before the bus even left. I knew she was glad to see me go. "Call me when you get there," I remember her saying.
We seemed to be going backwards through desert and mountains and all the beauty of the old places I'd known. It was like my life was unraveling to a beginning that was always waiting for me. Once we crossed the Tehachapi's the highway flattened and went straight as far as I could see. Creased brown hills flowed off to the West and the snow-flecked Sierras hemmed us in to the East. We passed small towns looking like outposts in the swirling dust. I reached into my pocket and found the medal of Saint Lucy. I was surprised I still had it.
My cousins and my grandmother met me at the bus station. My grandmother fell back when she saw me. "La cara del padre," she said crossing herself. My little cousin Ricky held her hand and looked at me with big eyes. His father was in prison too.
My two older cousins laughed at my confusion and Omar slung his arm around my neck, cranking my head next to his ear. "Don't worry ese, you can kick with us. We'll teach you all the Spanish you need to know. You're in Norte Califas country. We take care of our camarades."
"Come here, Bobby boy," said Omar. He held his arm next to mine. "See, you're brown, just like us. Here, everyone is brown or white and you ain't white."
"Yeah, cuz," laughed Isaac. "Grandma's getting old. The vieja won't be around much longer and pop's in the pen. We're all you got."
I looked at my grandmother bent over. What they said was true. It didn't seem like she could take care of Ricky. Soon she'd need someone to take care of her. Ricky reached out and took my hand and we walked out into the glare of the fading sun.
After a year in Mendota, I watch everything carefully. I can see how things are. I've learned not to talk. I say as little as possible. The Mexicans my age work in the fields or they're in gangs. My cousins are in gangs. What I see in their eyes scares me.
For the time being, I'm just a lookout while Omar and Isaac pull off the robberies and drug deals. Dressed like a white guy I can pass in these suburban neighborhoods near Fresno with the cookie cutter houses. I wait in the car holding a thirty-two praying I don't have to use it. I remember Eddie saying, "If God doesn't want it, the saint cannot do it." Why would any God want me to do this? But sometimes things happen. Press the trigger and in a second you're changed forever. That's how long it took my father to leave and for my mother to turn away.
The gun feels solid, smooth and cold. It fits so perfectly in my palm. I hold it down between my knees grasping it with both hands until my cousins return; their faces hanging in the blackness like moons. They climb in the car pulling wads of bills from their pockets and I look at them in the rearview mirror. Their eyes, lit by the dim light of the car, are as dense as stones. I clutch the wheel to stop my hands from shaking. Now I see my father lied. There's no glamour in this life. The only excitement is fear.
Something like a slight breeze, or a hand passes over me as light as a cobweb. I look in the mirror again. Now I see my own eyes. My cousins' eyes fade into the dark but mine remain brightly lit like translucent green pools and I keep looking deeper, trying to see the bottom, where this is taking me. It seems like I'm flowing into a current which sweeps my body away, but which allows me to see more clearly. The current spirals down glittering with stars which light the way. I realize I'm being guided down a path toward someplace inside myself. But the closer I get, the farther away it appears. Yet there is a destination. That destination may be far off, but the path is lit. It makes me want to follow it and it makes me calm.
Now the eyes of my cousins emerge from the blackness and I hear Omar's voice, "Hey, Bobby. You crazy? Let's get the hell out of here."
My mother called on my birthday and sent me some golf clubs. She said I could go back to Arizona soon, for a visit.
"What's the point?" I said. "Why would I want to see you and your shithead boyfriend?"
"Don't you want to see your new brother?" Her voice sounded shaky, but I didn't care. I wanted to hurt her.
She asked how I'm doing in school. But I don't go to school much. Nobody cares. They don't expect Mexicans to go to school. Someone called my grandmother a few times, and then they stopped. My grandmother doesn't speak English. She doesn't know what the hell's going on.
I gave the golf clubs to my cousins to keep them off my back. They probably used them to bash in a car window or fracture some guy's skull. There aren't any golf courses in Mendota. The only green comes from the crops in the spring and summer.
The whole valley gets fog in the winter. Sometimes it lasts for weeks, so thick they have to cancel school and close down the highways. But there's a stillness about it I like. I can walk into it and vanish. On those days I drive out to the end of a cotton or cantaloupe field and sleep in my car. There's no twilight, no dawn, not even a silhouette. Without any distractions my dreams are vivid and clear. I keep seeing the statue of Saint Lucy, but her eyes are alive. Different eyes I recognize are superimposed over hers. I see my father's solid brown eyes and the green glinting eyes of my mother and even my cousins' eyes. As each covers the other they melt and blend together until I'm looking at my own eyes and Saint Lucy with her sad smile. They're all as one reflecting back at me.
I don't hate my father anymore. Maybe, in some way, he is helping to guide me. This is where it all started, but it's not where it has to end.
I wake in the morning to the harsh smell of chemicals. The workers have come to spray. I can't see them, but I hear them laughing and calling out to each other in Spanish. I'll stay all day just listening.
In the summer I take my little cousin Ricky fishing at the lake. There's a flat, smooth rock we can sit on under an oak tree while the sun beats down through glittering dust. Leaves are starting to fall from the sycamores and they blanket the shoreline rolling gently with the ripples. Ricky whacks at the tule grass growing along the bank and scares up blackbirds.
I think I was guided back here for this reason; to make sense of my world and how things came to be this way for me. My father is just over the hills, in Avenal. I want to visit him now and look at his face. I want to know what part of him is in me. I want to know what he felt like when he left me. I want to be able to share pain, like Eddie told me to.
As I watch the fathers with their boys I pretend that Ricky is my brother. I help him with the bait and show him how to cast his line. He kind of sucks his lip when he gets a bite and breathes in quickly. He looks up at me squinting a little in a way I like. Like I'm some kind of hero. But when I kneel down to help him and look into his eyes, I realize he's the hero. It can begin again with him.
Maybe there's time to tell him about the saints and it'll mean something to him.
Jill Stegman is a high school teacher in Atascadero, CA, and her work has appeared in various small publications.