Friday, November 22, 2013

A Christian failure

Here's a true story about something that happened in the Portland Metro area not too long ago. I've changed names where appropriate.

For African women, getting one's hair done is more than a cosmetic activity --it's a social event. The process of having extensions braided into kinky African wool is a time-consuming activity that can often take 8 to 10 hours. The custom is that the women spend all day at it while watching Nollywood movies and eating African food.

Several years ago, a woman, an immigrant from sub-Saharan Africa and a Christian, came to our house so that Maty (coiffure extraordinaire) could braid the woman's hair. I'll call the woman "Fatou." The woman brought her 3-year-old daughter (I'll call her "Susie") with her.

At one point during the day, as Maty and Fatou were gabbing away in French, Susie looked at me and said, apropos of nothing: "Stevie put his penis right here!" She pointed at her vagina. All conversation stopped at that point.

"What?" I asked, uncomfortably.

She repeated the statement.

In the confused silence that followed, Fatou spoke. "It's true. She was raped." In response to Maty's and my gaping incomprehension, she shrugged. "The counselor told me to let her talk about it, if she wants."

Fatou then proceeded to tell us the story.

When Fatou's family came to America from West Africa in the early 00's, they were having a hard time adjusting to the new culture. A local Christian church, I can't remember the denomination, took the struggling family under its wing. They brought the family to their place of worship, invited them to social events, and made them feel welcome.

The family was grateful for the kindness and immersed themselves into their new community.

Susie's parents both worked and so they needed day-care for their daughter. Fortunately, a prominent family in the church provided day-care. The mother of that family home-schooled her own children and also oversaw a day-care center that catered to the children of other church members.

Susie joined other toddlers at the church family's home while Fatou and her husband went to their wage-earning jobs.

The family providing the day-care included a teenage boy of about 15 years whom I'll call "Stevie." Stevie had been home-schooled his entire life. On occasion, when his mother would leave the house on some errand or another, Stevie was asked to watch over the children.

On one such occasion, something bad happened.

On that day, Fatou picked up her daughter after work and was driving home when Susie told her about it. Fatou couldn't believe it at first. But as her daughter said more, Fatou began to panic. She took her daughter home, gave her a bath, and called the police.

Although Fatou later learned that giving her daughter a bath might have hindered the investigation, nonetheless, there was enough compelling evidence on Susie's clothing and on her body that a warrant was issued for Stevie's arrest.

The day-care family, as it happened, had left that very afternoon for the Oregon coast, to take part in a Christian convention. So Portland police called the Newport authorities and asked them to arrest Stevie and have him brought back to Portland. Apparently, the arrest occurred in front of the entire Christian community during their convention.

Stevie was found guilty. At the trial, the judge stated that he had never before seen a case where a 3-year-old girl had been raped. I don't know the details of the sentencing, but Stevie was incarcerated and assigned "sex offender" status, which will be with him for a long time to come.

It's a horrible story, but it doesn't end there. One of the most tragic and disappointing aspects of the whole affair was the reaction of the local Christian church.

Like good Christians, they rallied around the prominent day-care-providing family. I think that was noble and kind. That family was devastated by the act of their wayward son and was, no doubt, in sore need of support.

But the African family, Fatou's and Susie's family, suddenly found themselves shunned by the Christian community they thought had befriended them. Invitations to events dried up. People avoided them at church services. They were ostracized.

Eventually, the African family felt compelled to leave the church and find another place to worship.

It's a sad and tragic tale. A family in need comes to a community for help, is assaulted by one of its members, and then is turned away for exposing the community to shame.

Make of it what you will.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

River (Pt. XVI)

The rosary is a path she has walked since the days of her childhood when, in the dull red heat of Chihuahua afternoons, she would sit in the shade and pray, working the beads in her fingers.

The beads have never been far from her hand. They were once bright and polished, but years of devotions have worn away the color. Each bead is the member of a family known only to her. Here is the bead with the chink near the cord. Here, the ten bright sisters of the second decade. Here is the void where once had been the large bead for the second Padre Nuestro. A place in her heart is saddened whenever her fingers encounter that void. It was in the tragedy that had swept her old life away, when she was a girl with a mother and a father and a brother. Then there are the three new beads --the beads that were carved by her husband many gray years later from the walnut tree that stood in the corner of garden behind the house in Merced. The house where they had raised their children. The house where her life flowed alongside that of her husband.

She murmurs while her mind probes the Great Mystery. Her voice is a ghost.

En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.

She knew the boy before she ever saw him. Tottering out of Hector's van in the predawn, her first sight was of the car. It was not a car she knew. There were two people in the front seat. The scarecrow girl and the hatchet-faced man. She did not see the boy lying in the back seat, but she knew of him. She is sure he had come to her in a dream

Creo en Dios Padre Todopoderoso, Creador del Cielo y de la tierra, y en Jesucristo su Único Hijo, Nuestro Señor, que fue concebido por obra y gracia del Espíritu Santo;

When the boy emerged from the car, she saw first his broken mouth and then his confusion and anguish and knew that he was caught in something he feared and did not understand

Padre nuestro, que estás en el Cielo, santificado sea Tu nombre; venga a nosotros Tu Reino; hágase Tu Voluntad, así en la tierra como en el cielo.

"And what business is that of yours?"

It is Father Pedro's voice. Her memories of Father Pedro are vivid in every detail except for his face. She cannot remember. Was it kindly or stern? Smooth or wrinkled? Handsome or ugly? But she does not wonder on it overmuch. She remembers mostly the sound of his voice --the way it enveloped her in warmth and peace much like the waters that nearly drown her.

"Will you weep if the boy is swept away? Has there not been enough weeping already in your life?"

Dános hoy nuestro pan de cada día; perdona nuestras ofensas como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden; no nos dejes caer en tentación y líbranos del mal. Amén.

"If it is my part to weep, I will weep." This she replies to the memory that confronts her. This is easy for her. She has never lost the reassurance she found on that terrible day in her childhood

Dios te salve María, llena eres de Gracia, El Señor es contigo, bendita Tú eres entre todas las mujeres, y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.

They were gathering firewood in the dry riverbed, the wind chasing the storm clouds away to the east. Jaime, forever a child, stooped to pull at a half-buried tree limb. A trickle of clear water cut a channel through the sand. They did not notice the swell.

The roar from the canyon alerted them. Jaime straightened and turned to the mouth of the shallow canyon from whence the noise came. Then she saw her father, sprinting toward them across the sand, yelling and waving his arms. But his voice was lost in the growing tumult.

Gloria al Padre, y al Hijo y al Espíritu Santo.

A wall of water gushed from the mouth of the canyon, pushing before it a riot of dead brush. As it bore down on him, Jaime turned to her. Her father, eyes wide with terror, rushed toward him, his feet raising small eruptions of water with each stride.  

She saw her father embrace the boy, then saw the flood envelop them both in oblivion.  It was upon her only seconds later.

Vuelve a nosotros esos Tus ojos misericordiosos, y después de este destierro muéstranos a Jesús, fruto bendito de Tu vientre. ¡Oh clemente! ¡Oh piadosa! ¡Oh dulce Virgen María!

The boy from the car needs help. He fears to act; he fears that choosing will doom him. If she could only reach him...

To be continued...

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

Monday, November 04, 2013

River (Pt. XV)

Something drifted in the broad sweep of the river. Eddie saw first the glitter of sunlight reflected on glass, then bright blue and white paint contrasting with the gray-green water. A child's toy boat, spun in the roil gathered at the footings of the Hawthorne Bridge. It pitched and reeled in the turbulence.

Behind Eddie, Jonah's performance thundered. Eddie caught snatches of the monologue. "...led Eligius to a camp hidden in a fold of the hills ...a blind old witch mumbling by the fire... never again to see Lupe or Dolores or silent, strong Maximo..." 

But Eddie had lost interest. He watched the toy boat bobble in the current. His mind caught on unanswerable questions. What am I doing here? Where am I going? His thoughts dove beneath the surface, seeking out the whisper of the river.

Darrel held the knife in his fist, blade-down, and dug a hashmark into the surface of the panel door. The mark he made was as long as Eddie's hand, and ran straight up and down, parallel to three similar marks that were there before he started.

When he finished, Darrel spun the knife in his hand and pointed it across the room. He closed one eye, as if aiming a gun, and pointed the tip at Eddie, who huddled on the mattress. "That's four," Darrel slurred. It was Friday night, so he was drunker than usual. "One more and you're gone." He weaved on his feet, then nodded, as if he had just demonstrated an irrefutable truth. "'Member that," he said. He lurched out into the hall and beyond to where Carlotta lay inebriated in the front room.

Eddie kept silent, salty tears warming his cheeks. The coppery taste of blood lingered on Eddie's tongue. His teeth felt awkward; the force of Darrel's punch had moved them, pushed them into a new alignment.

He wasn't sure what he had done to cause Darrel's rage. But Darrel wouldn't remember, either. He never remembered anything when he got that drunk. The hash-mark would be enough to remind him. He'd awake in the morning, eyes like blood, jaw already clenched in anger, and see the mark etched into the cheap stain on the door. He'd glare at Eddie, just like he had the three times before. Then, he'd look at Eddie's bruised face and his own mangled knuckles and growl "What'd you do to piss me off, boy?"

The television blared in the front room.

Even after Darrel had gone Eddie huddled on the mattress, covering his face with his hands. He peered through his fingers at the empty space where Darrel had stood. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. I'd kill you if I could. The fixture on the ceiling cast the room in stark, yellow light

After a time, Darrel's snores came roaring out of the front room, rising above the noise of the television. Big man, Eddie thought. One day you won't be so big, though. He wiped the tears off his cheeks and stared at the hash-marks on the door. Four. No matter. There was nothing Eddie could do or not do. In time, Darrel would etch the fifth mark. Eddie didn't know what would happen then.

He got up. Darrel's snores rose and fell like waves of nausea.

Eddie crept through the doorway and down the hall. The front door was before him, solid and ominous, concealing the world beyond. To his left was the opening to the front room. He peered in.

The television was on the local newscast, tinny noise blaring out of its speaker. Darrel was slouched on the sofa, arms folded across his chest, booted feet stuck straight out and resting on the coffee table before him. The bill of his cap covered his face. Carlotta lay like a dead thing in the round rattan chair across from him.

The knife rested on the coffee table, near Darrel's crossed boots.

Eddie stared. Big man.

Eddie stepped into the room and looked down at Darrel. He would not awaken, Eddie knew. When he was drunk like that, he was as good as dead until morning. Eddie's hand was inches from the knife.

"Whatever you're thinkin', it won't work," Carlotta said.

Eddie turned his head.

Carlotta had not moved. She lay exactly as she had when he entered the room, but her eyes were open. When she saw Eddie's mangled face, her expression softened, somehow became more human, before settling into the hard lines that came from years of heavy drinking and despair. "He'll probably kill you one day," she muttered.

Eddie blinked, but said nothing. When Carlotta spoke, her words were like a punch in the gut.

"There's nothing here for you, kid," she said. "Be better to just shove off and see where you end up."

Darrel's snores marked time.

Eddie felt his throat tighten. Tears welled anew in his eyes. "Are you serious?" he asked. "You really want me to go?"

She didn't move. She just stared.

"Mama? Really?"

She sat upright. Her hair, alive with static charge, waved about her head like the thousand antennae of some freakish insect. "You got a choice," she said. "That's more than I ever had."

"Where can I go, Mama? How can I go anywhere?"

"Go to your dad in Oregon. It's about his turn to take you for a while."

Thoughts of Oregon and Adam danced on the edges of Eddie's imagination. His heart rose at the thought, but he shunted it aside. A hopeless dream was worse than no dream at all.

"I can't walk to Oregon, Mama."

Carlotta didn't reply. She watched him. He could see that she was more than half drunk, but that she was struggling to piece something together. A plan of action or a scheme. Then she shrugged. "Take my car," she said. "It might get you there."

"Your car? You want me to take your car?"

She gave a little laugh. "Consider it your inheritance," she said. "It ain't the send off I ever imagine I'd give you, but it is what it is." She stood and tottered away, into the bedroom she shared with Darrel. Eddie stood in the middle of the front room, stranded by his own confusion. Darrel's snores droned like scornful laughter.

She returned, extended hand holding a twenty-dollar bill and a single car key. She held it toward Eddie, who stared, uncomprehending.

She shook her hand at him and nodded toward Darrel. "Take it. He won't sleep forever," she said.

"Really, Mama?"

She gave a curt nod.

Eddie held his hand out, palm up. He kept his eyes on her face.

But she did not meet his gaze. Instead, she dropped the key and the money into his open palm. Then she turned away. "I don't expect I'll be seeing you for a while," she said. She disappeared into the shadows of the room beyond.

Eddie stood frozen for a moment. He heard the creak of box springs and knew she was gone to bed. Goodbye, Mama. He tucked the money and the key into the pocket of his jeans. Then he turned and went back to his room. All the clothes he owned were scattered about on the floor or in stacks by the mattress. These he stuffed into a plastic garbage bag. He slung the bag over his shoulder and cast about, looking for anything else he might need, and wondered if it wasn't too late to find a way he might stay here, in this hopeless place. For all its misery, it seemed better than the terror of what might lay ahead. His gaze came to rest on the door, with the four hash-marks. No. Carlotta was right. There was nothing for him here.

He turned toward the front door, the noise of the television and Darrel's snoring denying him any sense of solemnity. He started toward the door, then stopped short. He stepped quickly back into the room and lifted a corner of the mattress. The mermaid keychain, the gift from Adam, lay on the dirty carpet beneath. He snatched it up and tucked it into his pocket.

Then he turned and made his way down the hall to the front door. He did not hesitate to open it and step out into the warm California night. He pulled the door shut behind him, taking care to do it quietly.

To be continued...

Read Part I here. 
Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.