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Jan/Feb 2009 Fiction

For Lack of White Robes

by Wade Hartel

Artwork by Robert Hoover


The night before we all went to the river, before I was set to be gunned down in the street in my best pair of pants while robbing some lady who would also die, we played fútbol like we knew what we were doing. Like we knew the names of every position, even, our basketball smarts taking over, trying to translate. Some in the park played for small amounts of money or a few cervezas, others for turf or bragging rights, the mild approval of girls leaning against distant railings. We played for the chance to go in with Miguel, the best striker and recovering addict on the field by far and the only one who could call his own shot—anywhere against the base of the towering bronze statue of the long-departed dignitary that acted as our goal. One statue defended by another, for the most part.

About the only time Miguel didn't speak, not that we could follow much of it to begin with, was during his one-man clinic. Every attempt, every lousy breakaway, he just smiled and pointed to an exact target while he wound up with his opposing foot, his back arching and then snapping forward with so much wiry sinew. Sometimes he bluffed where he would kick, sometimes not—a game within a game that confounded all who tried to stop him. There was no denying that kind of charisma anymore. One look at Miguel and any of us could see that he would be the first in the river, running if they'd let him. He had become a man unbound in every sense and in such a short while that he seemed as able to form a cult as he was to start the next pick-up game. And whoever could snuff out one of his shots—not just a deflection but to actually catch the thing—got to wade in beside him.

That's what we were told, anyway, before Miguel served up the deadest duck of the night right at Carlos, who almost managed to drop it for the third time in a row before making the trap against his knee.

"Hey, I'm still warming up," Carlos said, blushing at the crowd's laughter, the girls' laughter. "My hands will be better tomorrow, I promise. I've never lost one yet."

 

This town smells like wet dog for a reason. It measures its rainfall by the liter—most of which arrives by afternoon cloudburst—and not a storm sewer around. Random waste flows with the current down both sides of the streets' flooded shoulders, and before all of it can channel off, the sun is back out more intense than before, ratcheting the humidity to such a level that a person can all but taste the mud and fecal matter in the air. But all I could think of the next day on the ride over was what else of this girl's, other than her hip with just enough cushion, would possibly get to rub up against me? What parking block of a speed bump would be great enough? What turn hard enough?

These were not thoughts I was supposed to be having, but the van we were riding in was built for ten and we had almost twice that plus no air conditioner. And half of the windows, for reasons not quite explained, wouldn't open. So God forgive me, then, for falling back on some of that old fashioned lusting in my heart to keep the nausea and light-headedness at bay. Can't a guy explore in his mind just how everything must feel under that clingy skirt, well past the knees but oh so thin, whether she's thumbing through a pocket Bible or not?

No, I couldn't, and she didn't have to tell me, either. The straight-arm she delivered to the seat in front of her when we rounded that one tight corner which would have sent hip, arm, breast, and what-else-have-you my way—that and her leaning as far as possible from me—was message enough.

Some of us were starting to redden while others turned more of a pale, jaundiced color, but Miguel and Carlos seemed unfazed, even by the growing smell of sweaty creases and orifices that already was triggering more than a few gag reflexes inside the van. No, Miguel would not be deterred from his story, not by his nose, not by heat stroke. He had just gotten done visiting his brother in prison—the brother who got busted three years ago for smuggling cocaine across the border and the prison with the highest number of rapes per capita of anywhere in the country. I wasn't sure how a stat like that gets out, but it did and Miguel wasn't shy about it when describing how he barely avoided the same fate.

"I was supposed to make the run that night instead of him," Miguel said through Carlos, "but I couldn't do it because I got stabbed the day before. Took one right in the pancreas. So I am very blessed, you see, though my brother still says I owe him one." He pinched off a laugh and made sure to point out that his brother had never been raped, at least not since he was put in with the other reforms a little more than a year ago. But then again, no guy would ever admit to such a thing down here. Not anywhere.

 

Another vanload of people was waiting for us at the river, but before we could get out to greet them, shaking every hand so as not to be rude while trying to breathe our lungs back into place, Carlos insisted on sharing the list of concerns that had drawn down his smile on the ride over.

He adjusted his skinny black tie against his white collar, which was loose though buttoned all the way up, its threads starting to come undone and the fabric pilling around the neck. Rubbing his eyes, he looked older than his thirty-two years ever could have betrayed. "First things first," he said, "you'll want to leave your sunglasses in the van. Around here, only drug dealers wear them. I understand it's a lot brighter than what you're used to, but try to tough it out. Also, stay with the group, please. It's okay if you decide not to join us, but if you do, only go where we go. This river is like a living thing. It's way faster than it looks and the currents are very swirling. You could easily get pulled under if you get in the wrong part, so stay together, lock arms. And last, I'm sure I don't have to remind anyone about this but I will: Don't go in if you have any cuts or open sores, and if you do go in, don't let any water in your mouth or you'll get sicker than you ever imagined."

Once we were out of the van and finished with our hellos, Carlos looked us over as if doing a quick head count—surveying our bleary-eyed, teetering, virtual salt lick of a group—and after some hesitation said, "Now that I think about it, it would probably be best if you all watched from shore. I know some of you really wanted to take part in this, but I wouldn't feel right putting anyone at risk, I'm sorry. Just be careful where you step. The ground isn't much safer."

Miguel seemed the most disappointed when hearing the news of our not joining him, but his string of rants soon turned from sounds of question and protest to those of humble contemplation at the approaching sight of the river and the old man waiting for him and so many others. We followed behind, some of us humming along to the song being sung by a few already at the river, a song I failed to place. Others checked for armpit odor in the most clandestine of ways or tried to free a section of underpants that had long since melded with flesh. Mostly, we fixed our attention on the ground. Carlos was right, the shoreline couldn't have been much safer than the river. We were running a tetanus gauntlet. Every mud-covered step was either around or overtop some rusted piece of metal, be it pop can, hubcap, bed frame, stovetop, or the rare—but also very real—syringe. The worst kind of jellyfish on the worst kind of beach. But what struck me the most was the number of discarded shoes, almost all of them sneakers, some generic take on the old Chuck Taylors, the same kind that Miguel wore. The only pair of shoes he had.

"Look at these," I said to the guy who would end up shooting me only hours later. "Every single one of them is facing sole-up. It's like hundreds of people fell from the sky head-first and just got stuck here. Driven in like tent stakes... like they were catapulted back from the other side of the river."

"Spare me the analogy, Feo," he said, stepping over another piece of scrap. "I'm busy here, trying not to get AIDS."

 

We were almost there when the girl who avoided all kinds of contact with me in the van turned her ankle in the mud and pretty much did the splits before settling into what was luckily the cleanest piece of soil there—nothing else around but what appeared to be a Cabbage Patch doll minus the head. When she landed, though, her skirt rode half-way up her waist, exposing the varicose and spider veins that covered the backs of her thighs, bone white legs that had never seen the sun. It would be easy to say that everyone, or at least the mean ones in the group, laughed and pointed like something out of a teen movie, like some made-for-TV remake of Carrie, but they didn't. There was that quick stab of laughter, yes, before anyone really saw anything. Then came the jerking of heads away in disgust—that quiet, collective groan. Then the return of stares that would not end.

I was just as appalled as everyone else who got a look but, being the next one behind her, I lent her my hand. I had to, if only to see if she'd rebuff me again—and she hinted at it to begin. But her hand, which started for the mud to push herself out, reached for mine at last. The guy who would later shoot me lauded my effort—"What a gentleman!" he said—but I would never know if he meant it or not, although I would wager that the overture was fake. It didn't matter if someone was trying to be nice to a girl for personal gain or playing along with our group for the chance to spend a day at a real beach later in the week, everybody had an agenda as far as he was concerned—every man his own personal fraud, himself included—and he made no secret of what he thought of her and the whole "pocket Bible thing," either.

"It's all an act," he said only yesterday, making sure Carlos was out of earshot. "The innocent looking girls are always the wildest, trust me."

She and I were the last ones to reach the river. She never did thank me, and whatever singing there had been was over with once we sidled up to the rear of the group. The old man who had waited for us at the shore began to speak. When he was done, he motioned for Miguel and Carlos to step forward from the front of the line and reminded Carlos to take off his skinny black tie.

"And here I thought this was going to be a formal affair," Carlos said, his smile restored, blushing yet again.

With the old man on one side and Carlos on the other, Miguel entered the river arm-in-arm, flinching at the step that brought him waist-deep—at the water's hidden violence, even though this was the calmest part for miles. Which would explain all the gawkers on the other side—some standing in a watchtower, some not. The ones in the tower held megaphones and, if needed, guns. The ones on the ground held handcuffs and signs with slogans like STOP RIGHT THERE! and NOT MY JOB! and MY GRANDPARENTS CAME HERE IN A BOAT, NOT ON A RAFT! and BORDER SECURITY STARTS WITH YOU... STAYING PUT!

Anything was permitted on cardboard as long as it had an exclamation point. Pity, then, that no one thought to write them in Spanish.

Before Miguel and the others could turn back around in the river to face us, a voice bellowed from the watchtower, "Alto, amigos." Stop.

The sign-holders must have been regulars, enlisted men in their own crusade. They knew exactly how far into the river to throw rocks without getting arrested or sparking an international incident, just the occasional refrain of "calm down, boys" from one of the megaphones above.

Miguel pointed with his whole hand to the tower like he was calling another shot and lobbed over a kiss—no misdirection, no irony. Nothing short of mortar fire would kill his moment.

As soon as the heckling was quiet enough, the old man spoke to Miguel in a voice all could hear, and Carlos interpreted for us. "Do you accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your Lord and Savior?"

"Sí," Miguel said, squinting into the sun.

"Will you live your life in accordance with His word, forsaking the temptations of the world?"

Miguel said yes again, nodding his head with a child's vigor.

Another rock splashed in the background.

Miguel plugged his nose while Carlos took a firmer hold of his arm and back and said, "Then, by the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit... "

The old man and Carlos leaned him over backwards into the fetid water. Carlos's hands stayed true—no dropsies whatsoever. "You are hereby baptized," Carlos said, a small quiver in his voice. "May God's blessings be upon you."

Our side of the river let loose with applause, a few cheers even. Miguel wiped the water and hair from his eyes and shouted, "Gloria a Dios! Gloria a Dios!"

Glory to God.

Then the truly miraculous—the voice from the watchtower said congratulations, be it at a low, monotone grumble, like the old public announcer for the L.A. Lakers. But moments later, the sign-holders were asked to step back, stand down. Only until we were done, it was safe to assume, but a blessing nonetheless.

Watching Miguel's baptism and every one that followed, I couldn't help but think of my own rebirth by water, five years earlier—the dull echo of each step into the tank, the bath-warm temperature that was controlled to the degree, chlorine burning my nostrils and stray, mystery pubic hairs floating at the ledges. How I spoke with no shyness to the hundreds who watched, and how I almost electrocuted myself and the pastor when I reached to lower the microphone that was put there to project my fledgling journey of faith.

And what about my dad's baptism, how we wore his thin, white boxer briefs instead of the suggested swimming trunks underneath his robe and treated half the church to a see-through view of his butt crack upon exiting? Or my sister's and how she must have stained the water with all the makeup that washed off her face, enough to dye Easter eggs with? What about all those tuneless, light-rock atrocities beforehand, that shrill wall of keyboard and guitar, the overhead projector with that nervous-looking man in back struggling to sync up the right lyrics? And those lunches they would have afterward, with the chicken salad on white buns and enough butter to send a man to his maker then and there?

Judging by the look on each face that came out of the river, out of that open vein of raw sewage, I was starting to believe that God preferred things on the messy side. And who could argue when beauty is so often born out of such chaos? Like when a drug addict and low-level gang member finds salvation by visiting his newly converted brother in the hardest penitentiary in the land. Or like when the girl who did the splits in the mud slipped into the river herself, after all the baptisms had finished, to rinse off, giving praise all the while, a palm raised at her side but not to show off, swaying in the slightest to the hymn being sung in English as well as Spanish. What else but "Amazing Grace"?

 

That evening, all of us were in our finest witnessing clothes, our brand name labels removed or covered up the best we could. We were stage-ready, so to speak, our stage being the street. The only thing we were missing was our little old lady—old being late thirties, a chaperon—who had instead become one with the church toilet after swallowing too much water, not from the river but during her morning shower.

Carlos approached our huddle. "You don't have a victim. You need a victim."

The girl who fell in the mud raised a hand up at her side again. "I'll do it." The skirt she wore now was even longer than before, just above the ankle.

"But you've never practiced this one," Carlos said. "Are you sure you're up to it?"

She nodded, a hint of sarcasm on her face.

The skit in question, which we always saved for the end because of its supposed impact, was Carlos's brainchild, the culmination of his creative powers and the perfect number before the quick sermon in Spanish and following altar call. In it, two robbers accost a woman on the street. The first robber, played by me, grabs for her purse only to shoot her dead after a brief tug-o-war. The barrel of the gun is my pointer finger and no sound is made—that would be lame, Carlos said, since the whole thing is done in silence. Then before I can get away, my accomplice turns on me, puts a bullet in my head, and runs away with the loot. I fall right next to my own victim.

Then a crowd of bystanders—the rest of our youth group—circles close around the murder scene. A policeman, played by a boy who got caught watching scrambled porn in his hotel room the night before our flight down, arrives and places a sheet over the bodies. But wait! The victim and I are now out from under and walking among the crowd, soon shocked to discover that the cordoned-off bodies are none other than our own. She of course goes on to meet St. Peter—or some other, less Catholic equivalent, played by our youth pastor—at heaven's gate and learns that her name is in the Lamb's book of life, which was really a phone directory with the cover painted black. But no such fate awaits my character, who ends up trying to bribe the gatekeeper after double- and triple-checking the book for himself. Finally, St. Peter's bouncer grabs the murderer and carries him away to what is presumably hell. End scene.

Until that night, my favorite part of the skit was where I got to try and barter at the pearly gates. I always thought it would make for good practice when it happens to me in real life, as there was no way my name could be in any kind of book, despite my baptism and the instant martyrdom that would have been my electrocution. And how I played it up, too—arms flailing, hands reaching for money in pockets but pulling out nothing but lint. At a border church earlier that week I grabbed the collection plate, filled to the top with rainbow-colored money, and held it under St. Pete's crooked, whistling nose. He wasn't impressed by my improv skills, but at least I got a laugh out of the congregation.

This time around, my favorite part was much different. Before we took our places, the guy who would murder me said to our mutual victim, "Make sure you're a little more careful the way you fall down. People might get more than they bargained for."

She tried not to appear like the words sawed her off at the waist, but she was not an actress. I killed her with a deep-set remorse in my eyes, and when my time came to hit the ground beside her, I fell too close—accidentally, I swear—and half landed on her. I would be the first to say that one of my hands wound up somewhere it shouldn't have, somewhere that usually requires several dates, if not a ring, for a guy to touch. I couldn't move it, though, being dead and all. But when the policeman put the sheet over us, in those few seconds before our body doubles forced us out into the crowd, she gave me a look like I could have left my hand there as long as I wanted. Like I could have put it anywhere.

 

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