ESTA ES SU CASA--JUNE 2009
The emperor of ice-cream
It seems I must withdraw some of my previous comments about the serendipity of death. The Prince of this world--the one poet Wallace Stevens called "the emperor of ice-cream"--once cast out, still has many loyal lieutenants, inciting a plague of mis-rule.
My sister Mary Anne's finale was a dire struggle in its last hours, but her consolation was the presence of family--and God. The beauty of her funeral transcended our poor limitations who prepared it. It seemed to come "from above." And the sprays of Holy Water on her casket at the grave blessed us all.
These are everlasting memories of faith and love, and I hope you share them.
But there is an undertow that will not let us stand. Phone lines are jammed on Mother's Day--my last night in St. Louis--so I waited till late to call Dora. She didn't sound right. "Nelson's just been shot," an
d Elvis went to investigate. The electricity was out in town, it was raining, the cliche dark and stormy night. I immediately called Elvis' cell. "Miguel, Nelson is dead." A moment's hope that he might live, ripped out in the time it took to dial a phone. This is the Doctor Nelson,not the coffee Nelson, as I supposed for a second when Dora first spoke. Remember how I used to joke about him--that anytime you saw him he'd launch into a doomsday scenario: "I just saw three patients with the same thing, and they all died within a week." This time he was right--he met his own apocalypse. Shot once in the stomach with a sort of zip gun that only carries one bullet, he managed to get to a neighbor's, where he died in a chair, crying, "Mi familia, mi familia!" Lacho, who runs a little eatery here, says the wound was not that deep; he could have sucked out the bullet and Nelson would have survived. Well, who knows?
"Mi familia." When I got ba
ck to Las Vegas a few days later, I told Nelson's wife Liliana, looking gaunt and flat, that I was so sorry I wasn't there. "I wasn't here, either." She and Nelson had sort of been separated for a while, Liliana living in San Pedro Sula, with two of their children, teenagers, a boy, Nelson, Jr., and a girl, Yvonne, a godchild of mine who shares my October 12 birthday. (We always exchanged presents and invited each other to our parties.) Only Elgar, who fancies himself a gangbanger, was at the house that night--and Sulema, the wife of Marlin (Elvis' brother run down by a taxi in New York City), who was picking up some extra cash cooking and cleaning for Nelson. With only one bullet, the thief spared them, locking them in a bedroom while he took care of Nelson. Nelson was never at a loss for words. I can only imagine the encounter.
The shot is fired, the thief escapes, Sulema and Elgar get out of the room, Sulema runs home to Elvis' house, where she's been staying with her children since Marlin's death, with the terrible report; Elvis heads out into the night--and I call Dora. Dramatic enough for a stupid summer movie, but drenched in real terror.
Elgar, 19, has been a common troublemaker around Las Vegas for awhile, including marking gang-signs on the walls of the church, yanking out crosses in the cemetery, strutting around with his peeps, bothering little kids and stuff. He painted S!KAR!ØS in giant letters (that is, SICARIOS, 'assassins') on the back of their house. He's taunted me and graffitied my house, too, but when I saw him at Nelson's he looked almost old. I hugged him--and he hugged back. I guess he found out a gang is not a game.
And so began the novenario, nine days of prayer for the dead. Incongruous in Nelson's case, since he never went to church (except for Yvonne's baptism, when he glowed with such pride) and usually mocked religion. He lived right next to a little evangelical church, and when they'd get all hepped up, hosannahing and clapping
and singing, he'd crank up his TV to drown them out. I had to laugh! But he was right, you know--he had a patient once that had to get to the hospital and Nelson asked the pastor for help. "But...he's not a member of our church!" That sealed it for Nelson. The hell with 'em!
Incongruous, too, no doubt that his son Osman is a priest in Rome! Somehow he found his way all the way from Las Vegas to the Vatican. He came immediately, too, and conclude the novenario with a special Mass and one more vigil. But, you know, a doctor is about as close to Jesus as you can get. Oh, Nelson might be dropping cigaret ash on your wound, shirtless, and cursing a blue streak, but he had almost miraculous diagnostic powers with nothing more than his hand and eye to serve as X-ray, blood test, ultrasound, EKG, MRI, not to mention that even at his age--and he was 56, they tell me--he was the best, hardest hitting, hustlingest soccer player in town. He'd run those "kids" ragged. I miss him more than I ever knew. I took him so much for granted, I can't even find a recent picture of him.
You know, Nelson was originally from El Salvador, a refugee of the bloody civil war there in the 80s when government-sponsored death squads were systematically assassinating anyone who might be thinking for themselves, such as
Archbishop Romero in 1980 and the Jesuit faculty at their university in 1989. "Salvador," savior, I guess that's what Nelson was for us, after his fashion; and here a death-squad of one finally caught up with him.
Then, just like that, he was gone. Again, the caravan; again, bringing back the body, again the wailing and the gnas
hing of teeth. Again, Yuya--this was her brother now, Marlin was her son--lost her mind; again Dona Julia--this was her son, Marlin was her grandson--almost died a dozen times. Five of his 6 sons are in the States, including Tomasito, our little mascot in the early days, so it was doubly hard for them, unable to return. It made the news, though, including a photo of Don
Tomas at the morgue. Lovely.
My faith in the sweet orderliness of death now in ruins, our only hope was Holy Week, the festival of hope and salvation, and passover, like the song Martin Luther King loved to sing about God "who can make a way out of no way." Every day was a trial, till we finally got to Good Friday, and the dramatized Way of the Cross the teens had
prepared, winding through the town, just broke my heart--that is, broke it open. When we gathered in the church afterwards, I could hardly contain my tears when Chepito, who never goes to church anymore, finally rose and joined the procession to kiss the Cross.
Padre Jaime had something special for the Easter Vigil Saturday night. He b
asically invented another procession that is not part of the usual ritual at all, this time from the town across the river, Paraiso, to the church in Las Vegas, with candles and songs--it took an hour, it was so...solemn! But as he had said, "We've got plenty of time--it's a vigil!" And, indeed the Easter Mass did not actually start till just after midnight, the earliest possible minute for the resurrection. So I was as pretty well patched up, I guess, but I still felt a little empty when I had to head off for St. Louis without finishing Don Tomas' novenario. But I wanted to be brave, if that's the right word, for my sister Mary Anne, who died the day after I arrived in the States. That story you already know.
The same day as Nelson's murder--Mother's Day--Elvis' nephew Will, 21, was gunned down in his neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, his gift for his mother under his arm. The damn hoods shook his hand, and kidded him, "You think you're a lawyer or something?" because Will, who
often visited us here in Las Vegas, most recently, of course, for his uncle Marlin's funeral a
nd then for his great, was a university student, a stylish, good-looking kid, striking enough that he landed a small speaking role in a recent movie. Then they shot him 5 times in the back a
s he turned away. It's a game, don't you see? He lived a few days, but I guess you can't suck out 5 bullets, and he died. Elvis went to San Pedro. I sort of wanted to go, too, but even he did not stay for the funeral. I guess I know what it was like, pure hell. In their fear, they couldn't even have the wake at the house, because, as Jochi, another brother of Elvis, said, "They want more carne." That is, more meat, more dead meat. Like his great-uncle Don Tomas, Will's story made the papers, under the headline, "Wave of Violence: 13 Murders in 24 Hours," so Will had plenty of company.
If you live in St. Louis, you no doubt heard about Will's counterpart there, the good young man murdered at his family's barbeque stand. Dead meat. I had supper with his Normandy Junior High teacher Mike Clay (Parkway North 2002) the night before. This link may still be active:
Some people think "global warming" is a priority, when the real pollutant is indifference to human life.
Somewhere in there came the news that Roger Cruz--nicknamed Pato ("Duck") because he sort of looked like a duck, someone thought, I guess--had been cut in half by a train (lengt
hwise! if that's not too graphic a detail for you) at the Mexican
border. Some gangstas threw him on the tracks, I guess because he couldn't answer them fast enough. He was a hapless youth, at least a little mentally retarded; he'd repeat words over and over. The last thing we remembered here was "milpa, milpa, milpa." He was going to the States and get money to buy a milpa, a cornfield.
Not everyone gets killed. Some just get slapped, hard. Don Jose's wife Marcia left him, and took all the kids, except Uladislao,
who wouldn't go. (Or as Uladislao actually told me, through his tears, "She didn't want me.") Now, mind you, Don Jose's an old
guy, tough as nails, and known to lift a few. So it may be that Marcia was fed up, maybe even abused, but whatever the truth is, Don Jose fell to pieces. He went searching for his kids, first to Victoria, where rumors surfaced that they'd gone on to Minas de Oro, about 20 or 30 miles away. But where, exactly? Don Jose came back to Las Vegas to plan his rescue. A couple days later, word came the two youngest boys, Fila, 10, and Rodrigo, 5, had WALKED from Minas to Victoria and were waiting for their daddy. I can't believe they didn't get a ride at least part of the way, but they said no--another summer movie in the making. Fila and Rigo knew where the 3 girls were, so Don Jose got a court order to reclaim the rest of his kids, but when the police car showed up, the girls got scared and wouldn't go. Then came Holy Week, when no one does anything; the next attempt, this time with Don Jose, the police car got stuck in the mud. So the saga continues. Meanwhile, Uladislao has become a nightly sleepover--he and Chemo are inseparable, especially in their sleep!--and Don Jose and Fila and Rigo arrive for dinner every night. I love it--I'm Marcia!
Speaking of dinner, it's taken a year, but Chemo is finally in love with my spaghetti again. It was his last meal a year ago before falling sick to some vicious infection that almost killed him. (If you recall, he had a fever as hot as the sun, including dozens of tiny little strokes, and spent a week in the hospital--all this BEFORE his heart operation!) He threw it all up that night, and for quite a while he wouldn't go near his favorite dish. He only wanted...beans! But I was patient, and of course as far as the rest of the crew I feed was concerned, "More for the rest of us!" But something just clicked recently and he wants seconds, thirds, and breakfast, if there are leftovers.
OK, to review, if you're scoring at home. Elvis lost his brother Marlin in March, his uncle Tomas in April, his nephew Will in May--and his grandfather Faustino last winter, the only one to die of natural causes. Because there's more! Just now, Elvis came over to tell me their daughter Lily, 17, had been "assaulted" in Tegucigalpa. Of course, your jaw drops, but here 'assault' is not rape (that's 'violacion'). She was robbed of her cellular phone, along with everyone else on the bus, on her way to the National School of Music, where she is finishing her third and last year. She said she remained perfectly calm, as a gang of four youths waving guns made their haul, and no one was hurt. This time....!
A catalog of catastrophe, but Life had a vote or two as well. Angelita, Don Tomas' great-niece, had her baby, a little girl that she wanted to name fo
r her mother Nolvia, but her "boyfriend" wouldn't let her. We didn't see the little thing till they came from San Pedro for Holy Week, and I loaned Angelita a fan, just so the baby could breathe in the heat!
And Dr. Karla, Chemo's pediatrician-cardiologist, had her baby--she was very pregnant when we saw her in January--a little brother for her her little daughter. Meanwhile, another brigada of heart surgeons came to Tegucigalpa, and Ron Roll was very eager for Chemo to come for a visit, but we couldn't get away, with all this stuff going on. Maybe the next time. Chemo is very eager to go to Tegus, even though his next appointment will be with the dentist!
"Miguel, the guy who killed Nelson is the same one who robbed you." Namely, Fredito, a sort of piggish-looking galumph, the local drug dealer, marijuana, even cocaine. Lacho seems to know these things, he's been threatened enough ("But now they know I have a gun.") And I'm suppose he's right. The night of March 31st, I was "assaulted" in my house, not with a zip-gun but with a machete. Guy bursts in the back door just as I was heading over to Elvis' house to ask him something. "Give me all the money! All the money!" He had the crudest head mask and the rustiest machete I'd ever seen. My first thought was, which Freddy sequel is this? (I know, I should have thought, which Jason sequel, or which Halloween sequel, but I wasn't thinking
clearly!) Scared half to death, but acting on Elio Flores' advice--stay calm, talk politely, reassuringly--I took out my wallet repeating, "Yes, yes, all the money." I took out the bills and handed them to him, looking and listening for some identifying clue but thinking, Hell, I'm not even going to remember what color his shirt is! Indeed, I didn't think it was Fredito; my memory was of a tall and skinny teen. Shows you my powers of observation! I was shocked he didn't grab the wallet, but then he hustled us into the kids' room, nicking Chemo along the way. I forgot to say Chemo was there, and so was Laito (Uladislao), and they said afterwards it was definitely Fredito. I thought for sure he'd ransack the place, but he just ran out into the night. Apparently he had been waiting for his chance; unbeknownst to me, Elvis had just left his house to go to his mother's.
He got about 30 dollars, a lot less than he was hoping for, I'm sure. What he didn't know was I had almost 200 dollars in a couple secret compartments of my wallet. Then I really did think it was a joke, a joke on him. But in a couple minutes I almost expected him to come back--with a gun!--and really make me give him ALL THE MONEY. My maternal and paternal instincts were roused by that nicking of Chemo--though it didn't even break the skin--because, as I have related before, Chemo saw his father die a bloody death, and now he's even more scared. I shudder to think what I will do in defense of my son.... Meanwhile, we're closing up early around here.
Folks think I have a lot of money. But that's because they see me giving it away. Somehow I give away twice my pension every month, and yet I never seem to quite run out. I can't explain it exactly, but, for example, even though I practically was
undercover in St. Louis last month--what with the death of my sister and the funeral delayed two weeks till her body arrived from California and her sons and husband made travel plans, leaving me with barely a week for much more visiting--no time even for a lovely Open House--still, friends were astonishingly generous--and not just with money, but with their time, their presence, their prayers and good wishes, beautiful cards and heartfelt emails, home-cooked meals, the works! What can I say? I feel like Fr. Costello at the College Church in St. Louis when about 20 kids were making their First Communion. He was just trying to tell them how much God loves them. And he started to cry. He said, "I know I'm crying, but it's OK, it's not hurting me, in fact, it's making me feel wonderful." The stories I tell are simply my attempt to turn the anonymous poor into your personal friends. I hope you feel wonderful, too!
Chemo scored a goal in his little-league soccer game. I had just asked my sister Mary Anne, who coached the Conquistadors in 1986, for a sign of her continuing presence. And Chemo just got his latest report card, high 80s and 90s--"gol!!" Meanwhile, that cross-kisser Chepito survived a near-expulsion at school for getting rather publicly drunk while I was gone. He and Pablito are passing fourth grade!
So I'm feeling wonderful. I just might enjoy some ice-cream!