A Box of Jesus
by Rita Kasperek
After he had bandaged up his mother's self-inflicted wrist gashes and after Washington State Hospital declared her legally blind and after the doctor had admitted her to the psychiatric ward, after he had pawned their belongings and spent most of the resulting earnings on smack and Chivas Regal and a funny, one-legged prostitute named Aretha, Diego started his life as a musician.
A record label—a good one—wanted to sign him up. He had a big future, the executives said. They clamored for more of his songs. We'll sign you up, you and your band, they said, if you write more. They set up an audition in San Francisco—scheduled for the day after tomorrow—for him and the band to play some new tunes. But for months, between taking care of his mother and partying all hours and playing weekend gigs, he hadn't written much of anything. The band was pissed about it and split already. It was okay by him. He wrote better when he was on his own.
Before leaving Seattle, Diego dropped off a few of his mother's belongings at the hospital: an angel-shaped milagro; a red shawl with a blue dove embroidered on the back, given by the sailor who had beaten her; and a pair of strappy black shoes, the ones she entertained men in.
He kept the photograph, which showed her as a young Tapachulan girl, taut, coiled with the grace of a cheetah, surrounded by three dark, sturdy-looking brothers, the uncles Diego had never met, the ones who had slipped over the border and picked peaches and walnuts and cotton for a dollar an hour.
And, of course, he kept her guitar.
She had taught Diego, when he was a boy, how to play it. Together they sang old Tapachulan folk ballads and tunes they invented together. She was young, then, his age maybe. The type of girl people used to call a beauty. She wore full, patchwork skirts and red lipstick and tapped a jarape with her high-heeled boots when she sang. "We'll be big stars someday," she dreamed. "Tú cantará, you will sing and play guitar, and everyone will cheer."
Now Diego had that chance. A record deal could make him enough money to buy a home, hire a nurse to care for his mother. He hated thinking of her in the psych ward, alone, blind and locked up with a bunch of crazies. She had begged him not to leave her with the doctor. Like most immigrants, she mistrusted hospitals, where people like her went to die. The doctor said the hospital would keep her for 72 hours. After that, if no one came for her, she would be remanded to state custody.
Three days. In that time, he would have hitched a ride south to San Francisco, written a new song, met the record producers, signed a contract and flown back (first class) to save his mother from becoming a ward of the state, a charity case.
A middle-aged ex-hippie couple dropped him off in the San Francisco bus terminal. Diego first set about enjoying a nice little party with a set of tall, pumpkin-skinned Indian twins from Puget Sound. The three spent the afternoon in a bar near the bus terminal, reminiscing about Sorry Charlie's, a Seattle bar with a midget cocktail waitress, and pounding down tequila shots, which Diego bought with the last of his money. One of the twins, the one with a jelly-bean-shaped mole on her chin, noticed his guitar. Diego explained that he was in a band, whose drummer, Mike, was meeting with some big-shot record producer.
The twin with the mole looked impressed, but her sister looked skeptical. "Mister here ain't fooling me. Serious musicians go to L.A."
Her sister toyed with her mole. "We might be heading to Los Angeles. You should come with us."
He shrugged. "I gotta try to find the rest of my boys." He checked the note he had tucked in his pocket. "They're somewhere around Ellis and Larkin. Do either of you know where that is?"
"I think in the Tenderloin," said the girl with the mole. "Red-light district."
"Mister here, he's shitfull of bull," the skeptical twin guessed. She snatched the paper from him and scanned it cynically.
"You could be a star. I can see that about you," said the other sister. She had a beautiful smile, he noticed, and words trickled through her throat like honey from a comb.
"You're a flirt," he said. "You remind me of my mother that way."
When she was a young woman his mother gathered men to her like roses, from bars, from storefronts, from her cashier's job at the corner drugstore, and treated them tenderly, always, the same man with different faces, ones who stuck her with thorns, robbing her, insulting her.
Once, when he was six years old, a sailor, who lavished expensive presents on his mother and drank like a fish, held his mother down and kicked at her ribs. Diego threw himself between his mother and the thrashing legs. He sank his teeth into the sailor's hand, the skin surprisingly soft and giving under his grip.
"Stop, Diego, you'll hurt him!" His mother pushed him against the wall. Her eyes glowed like polished onyx. She knelt at the man's side and kissed his hand repeatedly where Diego had bitten him. Even after the man left with her jewelry, she never did tell Diego she was sorry.
He tossed back a final shot of tequila. "You better watch it, honey," he said to the girl with the mole. "I might be a badass. I might beat the crap out of you or marry you. And you won't ever know which."
Her twin stared him down with shiny, black-olive eyes. "He's nothin' special. He's a fuckin' junkie."
"Someone died so that I may live," he told them.
The girls looked at him.
"My mother was pregnant with twins," he explained, hoping to impress them somehow. It was the one story of his life tinged with both pathos and veracity. "Something went wrong, only one of us could survive, and my mother had to choose."
"What went wrong, exactly?"
It was a good question. The fact that he never pursued the answer cast doubt on the whole story, which he had inherently, unquestioningly, believed. "She never told me," he replied.
"Go back to your mother, ask her to explain," said the skeptical one.
The girl with the mole touched his arm. "Is she dead?"
"No," he said. "She's crazy. Blind and crazy."
"Let's dance," she told him.
She gave her sister money for the corner jukebox, then led him to a clear space in the back of the bar that passed for a dance floor. In the warm amber light her skin looked smooth and dusky as a tamarind.
"You're beautiful," he said.
"Some badass." She enfolded him in her arms. He wanted to curl up in her and sleep there for a very long time.
She stroked his hair, propelled him gently around the floor. "You're a star, all right," she crooned in her honeyed voice. "It's just that life hasn't kicked you enough in the balls."
It was the first time such tenderness had been inflicted on him.
Later they all shared needles in a pay toilet. The veins of the skeptic were so bad that she injected directly into muscle. The resulting sores ripened into ugly, plummy abscesses that pitted her arms like bruised fruit. Sometime after that a drag queen fought over his guitar, he panhandled on Market Street, the twins decided to flop at a hostel. The one with the mole slipped him a beer coaster with a name and number scrawled on it. "We're staying here a coupla days, if you need anything."
Her sister's wet, black eyes narrowed. "Fuckin' don't call," she said.
He spent the night lying behind a dumpster. When he woke up, he didn't know where the hell he was. But he finally could hear a new song playing in his head. That and the hope of scoring some smack offered the possibility of redemption.
Except that his guitar was missing. He must have lost it to the drag queen. He searched his pockets. Not only had lost his guitar, but he had also misplaced the address and phone number of the Tenderloin studio where he was supposed to meet Mike and the band and the record producers this afternoon. He vaguely sensed, as through a scrim of fog, that these were alarming developments.
He fingered his choppy hair, rubbed the stubble on his chin. His lichen-colored mohair sweater chafed his arms, and the two tee shirts underneath smelled earthy and musty at the same time, a cross between lovemaking and an open grave. He brushed his index finger over his gums, as his mother did when he was a boy to clean his teeth. He found a far wall and urinated. His legs quivered beneath him, and despite the dampness, he broke out in a light sweat. He needed to find Mike. Mike was somewhere in a place called the Tenderloin. He pointed himself, like a sick bird, in an approximate direction. The stirrings of a song trembled in his belly.
On the street he passed working-class women on bus benches, starched and upright in durable dresses, sensible shoes. Good women. Respectable women. His mother had never owned such practical footwear. As she got older her heels grew longer, spikier, until they were thin and pointy as icicles. He wondered if the Indian girl owned such shoes.
"Hey, sonny." A grocer with a thick accent and bushy black mustache nodded to a stack of boxes filled with bananas. "Help yourself."
Diego pulled a ripe banana off the nearest bunch and nodded his thanks. He swayed down the sidewalk, inhaling the pungent blend of boiling coffee, rotting produce and frying meat. He forgot—for a whole moment—his mother, blind and crazy as a rabid bat, accusing him in shrieks of Spanish for abandoning her ("Tù me has matado!"). Here immediacy centered around himself and the next second, the next minute, the next hour. He bit into the banana. It tasted like tallow. "Que pendejo eres," his mother had cursed. In her native tongue, it sounded prayerful.
There was a church. A church with an open door and an early mass for the senoras who rose with the sun and prayed for all of their hombres, mujeres, compadres, muchachos, dead sons, stolen daughters. He stumbled up the wide, marble stairs and into a spongy darkness. All was hushed. Candles flickered far in front, a nest of recklings, statues stooped over them like mother hawks. He slumped into a pew. It bit into his hip, hard, harder than pavement. But better to pass out here, if he had to, than on the damned street.
Several good mamacitas were still kneeling in the front rows, black lace veils tenting their bent heads. Maybe they were praying for him.
A song flew past him—a beat—ratatatat—just like the taps of his mother's jarape. He slid down, laid his head against the hard rim of the bench back and allowed the music to drift back to him. He saw notes, musical notes. Half notes, whole notes, sharps and flats, swimming before his eyes like sunspots. A song about his mother, a song about Indian girls with moles. Shhhh-cha-RATaaattattatt. He reached for one of the prayer books they had stuck in a pocket on the back of each pew, thinking he'd write it down. Nothing to write with. This might be the song to make him a millionaire, the one he could offer up, like a Magi, to the kingly record producers. He pulled his hair. It hurt to hold the music inside.
A man in black tiptoed toward him, a shadow in the darkness. His footsteps made no sound. It could be death, he thought as the figure drew closer. It was okay by him. If it was death, he would ask it for a smoke.
A kind, pale face and a clean white collar, skin bland and waxy as a votive candle. The darkened church looked sweet around him.
He reminded Diego of his dad, if he had ever known him.
Bless me father, for I have sinned.
"Father," Diego said, "how about some Communion?"
The priest placed a tender hand on his shoulder. "My son," he said, "if you don't leave now, I'll have to call the cops."
Outside the church the sun burned a hole through the morning fog. As he led Diego out, the priest explained that the church was being readied for a wedding, and shoved ten dollars at him. Diego could buy a nice buzz from it, enough to get him through today, enough to get him to the Tenderloin, wherever the hell that was. Diego staggered on, guided by some unseen force, sick, driven, an itinerant monk. Storefronts shifted from salsa clubs and beat cafes to liquor stores and strip joints. A few blue-suited people mingled with whores and junkies and night crawlers making their way home from a tomcat evening, all of whom eyeballed him to see if they could score before they called the night quits and tumbled off to sleep the daylight away. He threw up in a corner, hiding his corruption as best he could from the clean, milling crowds.
He had never felt so holy.
He was one of them now, the ancestors who had peopled the stories of his youth: his uncles and cousins, toiling up and down the California coast, poor, rootless. They spent their days harvesting fields, their nights drinking and singing by firelight. One brother spun stories, another played guitar—so his mama said. "He made that simple instrument sound like a hundred guitars," she would tell him. All of them, the family he would have known if his mother hadn't been the kind of woman who relinquished herself entirely to men, crowded just behind him, crooning their Tapachulan lullabies. A song strummed in his head. Loud, louder.
The whole world was chanting it.
Then he heard it. Angels singing. A choir of angels, with James Brown leading the way. And, clawing for the sky like a serpent above the tangle of voices, the lick of a single violin.
He stopped. Damned if he wasn't in front of another church! This one was in a converted storefront, with a neon cross that read
—a nice idea, really, only it lost effect from covering only one half of the crosspiece.
A voice was calling to him! Another angel?
Ah, yes, an inner-city angel, a ghetto saint, one who would know and understand a sinner like him.
A black woman with an orange turban and matching dashiki smiled at him, revealing a glittering gold-capped tooth. She sat at a card table piled with little black boxes. He picked one up. It had the size and feel of a matchbox, only it was painted black and scotch-taped on both ends. On the box top, in silver ink, someone had drawn a crown of thorns. The other boxes had different symbols: a Jesus fish, a cross dripping with drops of silver blood, and an animal that looked something like a sheep.
"You like?" the woman teased, winking her gold tooth at him.
Diego shook the box. "What is it?"
"What you are holding," she said, "is a box of Jesus."
The choir sang on behind them, somewhere in the depths of the church/warehouse, praising the Lord for salvation. James Brown kept shouting hallelujahs.
"A box of Jesus."
She nodded sagely. "Everybody get a different message from the Lord Jesus Christ. Everybody get a different path to take. You pay five dollars, you find out what Jesus got in store for you."
He set the box down. "I don't have five dollars."
She peered at it. "You pick the sign of the martyr. A Chosen One." She jumped up, of a sudden, stretching her arms so her dashiki opened wide, like a priest giving last rites. "Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!"
Passersby snickered at them.
She pointed a crooked, beringed finger at him. "You don't ignore the hand of God. First He tap you on the shoulder. You don't listen, He give you push. You still don't listen, He strike you down."
"I'm telling you, lady, I don't have any money."
"It's for a good cause. Raise money for homeless."
A passing man nudged Diego with a sharp elbow. "I got Gucci watches. The real thing, no knock-offs. Across the street."
Diego took the opportunity to palm the box. He pretended to follow the man with the Gucci watches.
The woman laughed behind him. "It's all good," she called out, giving her blessing, her voice rising above the music of the choir and James Brown. "You believe, brother, and that be all the Lord need." He reached into his pants pocket, feeling the sharp contours of the box, the roughness of the paper. He pulled it out. The silver ink shimmered. Maybe he'd find a quarter inside, or a hundred-dollar bill. Maybe a chicken foot or eye of newt. More likely a handbill advertising a Baptist revival. He shook it. Nothing. It could save him or it could disappoint him: He couldn't trust himself to survive either way.
The day had worn itself down. In the watery twilight the lights of the Tenderloin blinked in a frenzy of triple Xs and naked women and twenty-five cent peep shows. Somewhere Mike and the band looked for him, somewhere the record producer was making music. Clouds gathered in the corners of the city, low and thick, like sheep's wool; a cold evening wind angled sharply through the streets.
Diego collapsed in front of one of the sex shops, leather chaps and stud collars in the window. His breath came in tatters, thin threads of saliva dangling from his lips. His heart beat from weakness not rhythm or hope, and his temples throbbed and his mind pounded and they all harmonized to the same refrain: The fix, the fix, the fix.
"Son." A tall, pale man whispered over him. He smelled musty, exotic, like animal skins and cloves. "You look like hard times."
He held out his hand. In his open palm was a small, sugary-looking packet, which he snatched away as soon as Diego reached out for it. "Come with me, I'll take care of you."
The show must go on, Diego thought, allowing himself to be manipulated with the cold, bony hands. Isn't that what Christ said when he dragged that damned cross through the stony streets of Jerusalem? (Did he get splinters in his hands, did anyone ever say?)
The man ducked into an alley, and Diego followed, the prodigal son, wondering what the man would expect in return for the dope. The corridor was dim, narrow, wedged between a nightclub and a strip joint. The man's pale face glimmered, wraithlike, in the darkness.
Out of the shadows lashed a fist, four fists, and hard, pointy boots. Sharp blows rained on him, more real than anything he had ever known. A rib cracked, a vein burst. Who would pray for him now? His lost brother, the one who had never breathed air? His mother? "Cavron, bastard, how could you abandon me?" she had cried when he walked away.
The pain cleared his mind. He fought the shadows, scrabbling, scratching. His fingers caught material, a shirtsleeve, and he tore at it, glorying in the ripping sound, the feel of shredded fabric in his hands. Someone died so that you may live. He hit harder. Skin slapped against skin. Bone grated against bone. Bastards, he thought. A punch caught him in the jaw. He lay where he fell. Gravel coarsened his mouth, cut his cheek. Hands, fumbling, emptied his pockets. They ripped up his photograph, tossed away the Indian girl's coaster. "Nothing," one said and spat on him. "Not a goddammed thing."
The pale man wrenched at his jeans. "I got something."
He prized out the small black box and waved it. "Let's get out of here," the pale man said.
They whistled and congratulated themselves, slapping each other playfully and skipping to the street, leaving Diego behind.
The world was reduced to flesh and bone and the cold hard ground on which he lay. He had finally done it. He was, literally, down and out. The phrase haunted him—it was something his mother said frequently, a sort of game they played when one of her men friends had abandoned them or the electricity was shut off or her jewelry had been pawned to buy food. "What do we do when we're down and out?" she'd ask in a singsong voice. And he would sing back, "Do a do-over!" It was their way of wiping the slate clean. This was his do-over. He would get up and grab onto anything that would hold onto him.
When he was sure the men had gone, Diego rolled onto his right side and tested the ground around him like a blind man, until he found the paper inscribed with the Indian girl's phone number. He forced himself to stand, amazed his legs still held. He wobbled at first, but after a few yards, his strides grew longer, the steps surer. He approached the first man he saw. "Please, man, spare a quarter. I need to make a call."
"Jesus, Mac, you need a doctor," the man said. He thrust Diego a fistful of coins.
Diego walked to a corner phone booth and dialed the hostel. He realized he didn't know the Indian girl's name. He asked for the twins from Puget Sound, and the operator connected him to another number. As if in answer to his prayers, he heard the sweet and tender voice he remembered.
"You should meet my mother," he said.
"Tell me where you are, sweetie."
He rattled off the jazzy names of head shops and clubs that ran along the street.
"I'll find you."
"We can go home together," he said. "The music will wait, if it wants us."
He sat at the curb, ignoring the shocked looks of passersby. From one of the clubs a scorching horn inflamed the night. The music reverberated in his head, steady, measured as a pulse, matched, beat for beat, by the pace of his own internal rhythms. It was an odd sensation, waiting for someone. He didn't recognize the acceleration of his own heart.
Copyright©2004 Rita Kasperek