Wiseblood Books

Sleeping with St. Joseph

Mike Bonifas

Yesinia waves from the classroom window. She is six years old and smiling and she presses her forehead to the pane. Jorge, her brother, makes his mouth a swirling glob of flesh and spit beneath the glass. They draw back and laugh. Abel rests the weed-whacker on his hip and touches his palm to the pane. First Jorge, then Yesinia, spread their fingers against his. They giggle and Abel smiles and the children run off and Abel gets back to work. Ten years ago, he and his mother exchanged the same gesture at Hall County Jail. The glass was thick, the light harsh. Soon after that cold farewell, she left Quanah to work poultry barns in North Carolina.

Abel finishes trimming grass along the stairway and heads for the parking lot. It’s eleven o’clock and Martín, his sixty-year-old uncle, has backed a lawn tractor on the trailer hitched to his pickup.

Martín hands him a plastic jug and points to the weed-wacker. “Fill the tank. Never finish a job without filling the tank.”

“I’m not thirteen.”

“Forgive me.” Martín props his foot on the trailer. “You learned a lot painting license plates.”

“Maybe I’ll get this work and get a lower job someday.”

A fly lands on Martín’s collar. “You hear back from the truck stop? Heard you applied.”

“They hired a high school kid.” Abel throws the weed whacker on the trailer.

“What about Wheeler County? The oil fields. Been up there?”

“Don’t have a CDL.”

“Roustabouts don’t need a CDL.”

“Eres flojo!” Martín swats the fly. “Remember that word, lazy man? Roustabouts don’t need a CDL.”

Abel jerks open the door of the cab and climbs in. His uncle is right. Roustabouts and roughnecks don’t need commercial licenses. But, after incarceration, Abel can’t bring himself to bunk in a man camp. He rolls down the window.

“When you going to fix the air conditioning in this truck?”

“When I reduce my payroll.” Martín grinds the truck into gear. “Crucita’s Café?”

Abel shrugs and looks out the window. His tension eases when they reach the courthouse square. These days, store fronts comfort him, as do the open plains that surround the dying town. He never adjusted to the crowded confines of prison life. Ten years he scurried like a rat. Now, rural Texas looks as pretty as a girl.

The café is busy. Father Raj nods from a corner booth. “Please! Please!” He waves them over. “So glad. You sit!” He smiles and appraises Abel.

“You. I know you?”

Martín scoots into the booth. “Es mi sobrino. My nephew, Abel. Lives with my mother.”

The priest frowns.

“Imelda Rojas.”

“Ah, yes,” the priest nods. “I visit Imelda this afternoon. Good woman. Holy woman.”

Abel shakes the priest’s hand and sits down. He grabs a menu. Next to pornography, food’s the best thing about life outside the wall.

Martín stirs his coffee. “Big funeral yesterday?”

“Many relatives come from Amarillo.” Fr. Raj’s eyes sparkle. “They like our church. Very clean.”

“The abogado show up?”

The word means lawyer and it buzzes in Abel’s ear like a bee.

“Jose’s son? Yes. Arrogant man. But,” the priest leans in, “he’s offered to donate a statue in memory of his father. Yes.”

Abel stares at the courthouse.

“Hand-carved in Mexico. St. Joseph the Worker.” The priest pulls a business card from his shirt pocket. “Beautiful statue.”

Martín fingers the card: Terra Sancta Gallery, Santa Fe.

“The lawyer won’t pay shipping. Solid wood. Very heavy.”

Martín hands the card to Abel. “You up for a drive to Santa Fe?”

Abel holds the card to the light. Next to the print, a yellow angel stabs a demon. He nods and shoves the card in his pocket. “I got a strong back.”

Martín smirks. “And people say he’s good for nothing.”

The waitress arrives. She is pretty and when she smiles she tries to hide a chipped tooth behind the order pad.

Glyph

It is two AM and Abel surfs the Internet. He is naked, his back pressed against the headboard. He eyes the camera angle and waits for a reply from Idahocowgirl87. From behind him, through the wall, the gentle snoring of his grandmother. He tries another site then dozes off. Around three AM, he wakes to the sound of his grandmother’s walker scraping the kitchen floor.

“Martín? Donde estas?”

Abel rubs his eyes. “Abuelita?”

“Martín. Necesito ayuda.”

“Don’t come in here!” He grabs his jeans. “Un momento!” He reaches the door. His grandmother stands stooped over her walker. “Martín no está aquí. Martín’s not here. I’m Abel, your nieto.”

Isabelle Rojas angles her neck to look him in the face.

“Let me help you back to bed.”

“Tengo sed.”

“Okay.”

Abel squeezes past the walker and fills a glass with water at the sink. She recognizes him when he holds the glass to her lips.

“Abel.”

“Si. Soy Abel.”

She drinks. “You’re Abel.”

“Yes.”

“I was dreaming.”

She hands him the glass and Abel guides her back to her room.

“Your dog, Skippy. Remember him?” She grips his hand as he lowers her on the bed. “You loved that dog.” Abel reaches for the blanket. “And Skippy loved you.”

Back in his room, Abel stands at window. Across the street, an abandoned house has tumbled to its knees, its porch a swollen lip. He wonders if the fallen structure ever reminded his grandmother of her nieto, bruised and broken in prison. His eyes search the weeds as he tries to remember the names of children who once lived there.

Abel slips off his jeans. Back in bed, his fingers flit like moths in the glow of the screen. He enters a chat room and leaves a message for SheGuard309.

Glyph

Martín’s pickup idles in the driveway. He rummages the toolbox then looks up and yells toward the house. “Bring a couple of blankets.”

Abel stands at the kitchen door, sipping coffee. Martín’s wife answers from behind him. “I’ll get them, Abel.” She wipes her hands on a dishtowel and knocks on Isabelle’s bedroom door. She returns with a padded bedspread. “This will do. You have money?”

“A little.”

She reaches for her purse. “Keep your uncle out of the bars. And you,” she looks him in eye, “you staying straight?”

“I did my time.”

She shakes her head and hands him a twenty.

At the truck, Martín folds the bedspread into a tight bundle and wraps bungee cords around it. “This will keep St. Joseph warm.” He throws it on the truck bed. “I’ll drive as far as Amarillo.”

The morning sky is overcast as they head out on 287. Near Childress, lights flash in the median. A jack-knifed cattle truck leans against a crushed RV. Martín cranes his neck. “I’d say that tourist fell asleep.”

“Get going, will you?”

“What’s the hurry?”

Abel cracks his knuckles. “Just move on, tio.”

“It’s a Bradley rig. I might know the driver.” Martín checks the rearview mirror. “Why so jumpy?”

“Move along.”

“Say uncle.”

A patrolman directs them toward the outside lane. Abel lowers the bill of his cap. They drive past the scene.

“We need to talk, Abel.”

Emergency lights pulse in the side-view mirror.

“You need a job.”

Abel sits up, straightens his cap. “I work for you.”

“Fr. Raj doesn’t want you on church grounds.” Martín taps the steering wheel. “And I can’t lose the contract. Or any others. You need to work for someone else.”

“There’re no other jobs in Quanah.”

Martín hits the turn signal. “I know a guy who owns a car wash.”

“Where?”

“Two miles up.”

“You’re crazy! I robbed a motel on this side of town.”

“It closed years ago, I’ll show you.”

“They’ll hunt me down!”

“Things change.”

“No!”

“Calm down.”

Abel grabs his uncle’s arm. The truck jumps the curb. Martín hits the brakes and the truck bumps to a stop in the lot of an abandoned grain elevator.

Martín turns on his nephew. “What the hell’s gotten into you?”

Abel has covered his face with his hands and is rocking back and forth. Martín turns off the engine. Outside, weeds sway in the wind.

“Quit crying,” he whispers. “You got a strong back. Said so yourself.” He tosses the keys on the seat.

Abel’s shoulders heave. Beyond them loom the elevator’s silos, graffiti scrawled on the pocked concrete.

Glyph

Abel pulls onto the Interstate. They drive in silence through Amarillo. Outside the city, they travel west across the Panhandle then into New Mexico, where the land opens on a vast expanse of mesas. At Tucumcari, Abel pulls off for gas.

“How late is the place open?”

Martín pulls a paper from his pocket. “Seven o’clock.”

Abel tops off the tank. “We better hurry.”

They continue west, then turn north at Clines Corners. They’re late when they arrive at the gallery in Santa Fe. The owner greets them. “You’re the men from Texas?”

They nod.

“We’ve been forced to make an adjustment in the order. I called your pastor and he approved the change. Follow me.”

The man leads them through rooms furnished with bronze horse heads and antique tables. On the walls, beneath spotlights, paintings of adobe churches and desert sunsets.

“Your priest requested a carved image of St. Joseph the Worker. At the time of his call, we had one on display.” The owner opens a door to a back room. “My assistant took the call and, unknown to him, I had already promised the statue to a buyer in Colorado. Fortunately, I was able to contact a santero from Seboyeto who just finished this piece.”

In the center of the room, on a metal table, stands a roughhewn statue.

“A bit shorter than the one originally ordered, but I e-mailed a photo to your priest and he approved the modification. And, in a way, your church is getting two saints for the price of one.”

Abel steps to the front of the table. The saint’s face glows smooth in the dim light. Strong and confident. Wood grain scars the cheeks. On the jawline, shallow gouges form a close-cropped beard.

“This St. Joseph is both a worker and a husband.” The man takes a silver pointer from his pocket and extends it toward a bouquet of flowers carved held in the saint’s right hand. “These lilies symbolize the pure love of Joseph for Mary, Mother of the Savior. Beneath the blossoms, his garment is treated with a semi-transparent wash which gives it a green cast.” He taps a blossom. “In traditional iconography, the flowers identify St. Joseph under the title of Husband of Mary.” He walks to the other side of the table. “Now, in his other hand, you’ll notice the carpenter square, the symbol of St. Joseph the Worker. It is somewhat unusual to encounter the two identities combined in one statue.” He retracts the pointer. “Does the piece impress you?”

Martín looks down at this boots.

“As I said, you’re getting two saints for one price.” He offers a tight-lipped smile. “Do you like it?”

Abel takes a step back, his eyes on the wooden lilies. “It looks heavy.”

Glyph

Martín pops a can of Modelo. “There,” he points toward a neon sign down the street. Rooms. $35.00. The statue rides in the bed of the truck, wrapped like a mummy.

At the motel, Martín and Abel carry the statue into the room. Space is cramped, so Abel unwraps the image and positions it on a table near the bathroom door. Martín claims the bed that affords a direct view of the television. They watch a zombie movie and soon the old man is asleep.

Martín’s wallet lies open on the dresser. Abel glances out the window and calculates the months since his release. Three at the halfway house. Two months, three weeks in Quanah. Nearly half a year. No drugs.

His eyes return to the dresser and his heart begins to pound. Before he realizes it, he is on his feet, lifting bills from his uncle’s wallet. He steps outside.

The night air is pleasant. Five rooms down, the glow of a television spills from an open door. A drug-thin man sits in a chair smoking a cigarette. The man nods.

“Nice evening.” He tilts his head. “Where you from?”

“Texas.”

“Me, too.” He waves him over.

Up close, the man appears older than Martín. A tumor bulges from the base of his neck. He shakes out a cigarette for Abel. “Sightseeing?”

“Passing through.”

The man reaches for a lighter but stops at the sound of shattered glass from inside the room.

“Dammit.” He stubs out his cigarette and pulls himself off the chair. “Might need your help, young man.”

Inside the room, a woman in a wheelchair stares at the wall. Her left arm jerks in spasms across a nightstand littered with shards of glass.

“Oh, Betty.”

The man lifts the woman to her feet. Her wide stare locks on his face. “It’s okay, hon.” Standing now, she tilts toward the man, her feet moving in tiny steps. He eases her to the bed.

“Hold her steady, son. I’ll grab a towel.”

Abel grips her shoulder, bony, like his grandmother’s. The woman’s arm is slick with blood. He sits next to her and reaches for her hand, but her fingers won’t open. The man returns.

“Betty, what are we going to do with you?” He swabs her arm. She tries to speak.

“Not to worry.” He looks at Abel. “This lady has the softest heart.” He wraps her arm in the towel. “But her blood’s thin as water.”

“You need bandages?”

“Hold her arm.”

The man reaches for a satchel at the foot of the bed. “She’s on Coumadin, so we travel prepared.” His hands shake a bit when he breaks open a roll of gauze. Abel notices the wedding band.

“Get another towel, would you?”

After the cuts are washed and the arm bandaged, the man fluffs pillows and eases Betty against them. He props himself next to her, kisses her hair.
Abel clears away the broken glass.

“Grab a beer. Cooler’s in the bathroom.

Abel returns and opens a bottle. He offers one to the man.

“No thanks.”

Abel sits down. The woman’s face remains expressionless but she pats the man’s knee with the hand that can’t open.

“Parkinson’s,” the man says.

“I figured.” Abel takes a swig of beer. “Been married long?”

“Fifty-one years.”

“Kids?”

“I’m all she’s got. And I won’t be around much longer.” He points to the bulge on his neck. The man fixes his eyes on Abel. “What do you do for a living?”

“Landscaping.”

“You’re lucky.” The man pats his wife’s hand. “When I was your age, I picked cotton and punched cattle. Later, got on with the railroad.”

“So, you’re from the Panhandle?”

“Just south of Lubbock. You?”

“Quanah.” Abel picks at the label on the bottle.

“Know the Fustons, young man?”

“They’re farmers.”

“Distant kin of mine.” The man shifts his weight. “But I never asked your name. Shame on me.”

“Josh.” Abel says. “Josh Garcia.” He takes another sip of beer and gets ready to leave. “And your name?”

“Joseph.”

Abel laughs. “No shit?”

“You think it’s funny?”

“No, not all.” Abel contemplates the scene. “Joseph.” He shakes his head and smiles. “That’s a good name.” He finishes his beer.

Glyph

Later that night, Abel is awakened when Martín stumbles from the bathroom and knocks the statue of St. Joseph on his bed. The weight causes Abel to roll against the statue. The rough wood scrapes his skin. Soon, his uncle resumes snoring. Abel is fully awake and unable to fall back asleep.
Patterns of neon light play on the wall. Abel lifts his arm and pats the statue’s wooden hand. Flowers bloom beneath his fingers. He slides his hand to the statue’s face where the wood is polished and smooth. The blunt edge of the carpenter’s square digs into his forearm. He hugs the sacred image and he recalls the men he held, trading sex for drugs.

Then he thinks of Joseph holding Betty and drums his fingers on the statue’s chest. If a heart were encased inside this wood, he would get an axe or a sharp-edged stone. He’d dig and claw and bloody his hands to get to it. He would gnaw like a rat to get to that heart.

Comments

  1. Robin J says:

    Beautiful. Heartbreaking. I know this kid. Thank you for sharing.

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