God in Humboldt
“God isn’t dead.”
She stared at the bumper sticker, wrinkled and brushed her nose with the side of her thumb. She kept her eyes on the sticker as if it might run away as she flicked on the lighter and held it to the cigarette gracefully balanced between two tensionless lips. She read it again and again, in pieces as air gently billowed her cigarette to life. “God.” Concept one. “Isn’t.” Second concept. “Dead.” Inherent problem with the concept whole.
It was just like Carlo’, she thought. To think that such a bumper sticker would somehow affirm his belief in God and God’s importance in everyone’s life. But actually, his bumper sticker was moronic. About as moronic as the Ford Mustang GT he couldn’t realistically afford the lease to. It wasn’t hard to guess at the debt he was slowly sinking into, either to the car dealer or someone much worse. Someone who drove a Hummer.
Her first boyfriend would never have driven such a stupid, unaffordable car. Of course, Jesus would never have done any of the insane, rude, moronic, hurtful things that any of her subsequent boyfriends did. But he was dead, so who really knew? All she knew was that he was a radiant, life-affirming first love, and if there really was some God looking down on them, he’d plucked him off the earth too soon. Or maybe right on time, before he learnt to love sinning.
But Carlo’ was a real idiot. Too stupid to even keep the “s” at the end of his name because it didn’t sound “gangster enough.” As if that was something worth striving for. Then again, he confused the idea of an omnipresent, immortal God with the concept of death. Idiot.
She stared down at her stomach, slightly protruding beyond her large chest. She broke the image with the glowing tip of her cigarette. At least her gut wasn’t as bad as sophomore year of high school. People kept asking her if she’d gotten pregnant over the summer. A cruel taunt. Crueler than those about her dark skin. It was after Jesus had died. Still a virgin, she irrationally confused an overdose on Oreos for potential pregnancy. $124.90 on pregnancy tests. Not one positive.
A’Me finished three-quarters of her cigarette and doused it on the bottom of her slip-on sneakers. She’d devised her three-quarter regulation in an attempt to quit smoking. So far, she had stuck to it. And so far, her cigarette expenditure was up $8 a week. But still, she had to be smoking less, right?
Rounding the bend of the church corner, A’Me marched up the steps, walked through the doors, and picked up the Dunkin’ Donuts hazelnut coffee and stack of pamphlets she’d left on the table. The first congregation members walked in just as she placed her cup back down on the table. She beamed at them and doled out the service pamphlets. She had already perused them and knew they had a decent service coming their way. Decent passage – Exodus 34 – decent sermon, decent prayers, decent hymns. Nothing outstanding but she’d be surprised if more than the usual sleepers drifted off.
The women of the congregation especially loved A’Me. Always had. Since she was a young girl with two long braids running down her flat chest, the women had doted on her. She used to hide behind her mother’s legs, wide, warm brown eyes gazing up at the tired but proud women dragging in their children, some with husbands in tow. They generally had their hands too full to try pinching at her cheeks, but that wasn’t true for the elderly. They mercilessly reached down to squeeze out some of her youth from her soft round cheeks.
It took years for A’Me to work off most of that baby fat. What she was left with she accepted as part of the give and take of being Hispanic in the U.S. You didn’t look like the models but you could look like the Kardashians, and it wasn’t clear which was preferable, but either way, you got men. Nonetheless, as the younger men of the neighborhood trudged into the church, she tucked in her stomach just a touch.
Buenos dias, A’Me.
The woman who spoke was a soft-faced, kindly woman with a missing index finger from an accident as a child. She had lived next door to A’Me’s parents when they’d first moved to Humboldt Park, and she’d been a kind and comforting presence, as well as the last-minute baby-sitter on many occasions.
Buenos dias Señora Torres. Como esta?
A’Me reached out her hand to Señora Torres’ outstretched, shriveled hand and gently held her cool, soft skin, looking deep into the kind woman’s, squinting eyes. She shuffled and leaned in close, gazing up at A’Me’s warmth. She smelt of perfume and decay.
Bien, gracias a Dios. Que dia hoy.
Sí. Gracias a Dios.
Gracias a Dios. The words flowed easily from A’Me but their meaning was hollow. Who was this Dios that she thanked? Apparently he wasn’t dead, and he sure had a home and family here in this corner. But for all the thanks they gave him for such a lovely day, couldn’t they ever slip a note of improvement into his suggestion box. After all, they could be doing better.
Señora Torres and A’Me broke their hold in exchange for the descriptive pamphlet of the decent service, in which A’Me had carefully highlighted the hymn numbers. A’Me leaned in and whispered the number of the day’s opening hymn and saw Señora Torres’ eyes light up. She nodded in appreciation and walked into the church.
The Priest floated into the entrance and nodded good morning to A’Me as she sipped her coffee. The crowd had lulled significantly and they had to keep service running on schedule, twenty minutes late. A’Me stepped into the open door to close their service to the world and saw in the bright beam of sunlight – gracias a Dios – her boyfriend leaning over a short, teensy tiny woman with fake lashes and unblended highlights dragging through her dark hair. His hand rested gently behind her ear and dragged a long, sex-snarled strand of hair down her chest.
Hola hue, A’Me cried out, freezing her boyfriend dead in his tracks.
He turned his head and froze like a pot-head in headlights. She gave him a sarcastic thumbs up and smile, then rolling her eyes slammed the church door shut. Another one gone, she thought sullenly. Then with a sigh she settled into the back pew and gently sipped her coffee, waiting for the obligatory desperate pleas for forgiveness that were as temporary as a vow to God.
Both Carlo’ and the pleas came bursting into the church. It wasn’t what she thought. He loved her. Besides, he’d seen her talking to that guy two nights ago. It wasn’t his fault he was a jealous man. He’d do better. How dare she turn from him.
She let the drama roll her around like a doll in a tidal wave, immersing herself in the hushed, whispered argument, the frantic snatch of her arm by his angry hand, the passionate kiss in the atrium, and then the wild sobs as she ran from the church to her apartment, where she leaned her arm and body weight against the hot bricks. The heat rays bouncing off them smelt primal.
After finally catching her breath, A’Me pulled out her phone and looked at the time – and his missed calls. Church had ended four minutes ago. She once had visited a cousin out in the suburbs and when they went to church on Sunday morning, the bells rang loudly across the green lawns. And when the Priest sent them home, extoling God, once again the bells tolled loudly in celebration of his love. She felt blessed as she tilted her head up to the sunlight and listened to that glorious ringing, as beautiful as any hymn had promised. But there were no bells in Humboldt Park.
A’Me slowly climbed up the wooden steps to her apartment and slipped in quietly. Her roommate was passed out on the couch, as per her Sunday morning routine. Her dress was off today, slung on the ground, but she was actually covered with a blanket, so that her bare breasts and uncovered ass did not hang out. A’Me usually socialized at other people’s homes after Church.
Finally feeling peckish, A’Me opened up her cupboards for cereal. Upon opening the fridge she realized her roommate had finished the milk. The only other option was Chinese food. She couldn’t stomach that so early, so she sullenly drizzled the cereal into the bowl and spritzed the various flakes with water. A small dribble of sugary water flowed down her chin as crunchy clusters gently cut into her gums.
Placing the bowl into the sink, A’Me stared out the window. They had a decent view of the street. Nothing fancy, but not the back of another building. There were trees the rose up towards the sky in Humboldt, some so large you couldn’t wrap your arms around the trunks. They rustled hymns. Humboldt was A’Me’s home. It always had been. But those trees had deeper cling and claim to Humboldt than she ever would. For that, she respected them.
Through the trees, she could see the doors of another church. People were milling about outside, there were balloons tied to the metal fence, blue plastic cups and bottles of sparkling cider kids poured out and imitated the drunk parents they’d seen before. Small kids clung to mothers’ pant legs and clutched their teddys tightly. A beam of sunlight shone down upon them all. A’Me turned away from His light and back to the dim of her apartment.
A snore escaped her roommate. A’Me rolled her eyes, grabbed her purse and keys and left the apartment.
She trundled down her street towards the park, a cigarette diminishing between her lips. Three-by-three gardens were springing to life around the neighborhood. Yearly batches of corn, peppers, and squash had been planted. Corn stalks were slowly stretching towards the sky while vines curled and climbed up chain-link-fences and wooden doors behind which one Cerberus after another howled at the world.
A’Me stopped and smattered her cigarette on the fence of an empty lot. Green grass shimmered happily in the sunlight, so vast between these towering town-houses it overwhelmed the senses as a national park might. A’Me paused for a moment and breathed in the soft hint of grass floating in the air.
Once, as a young girl with big brown eyes, A’Me had sat in the grass of Señora Torres’ home. She plucked at the soft blades of grass, pressed them between her thumbs and blew. Low loud noises came out as the sun went down. Her father told her that on the long days when he didn’t have work, he would sit in the park, pull apart blades of grass and blow. Long, sad, melodious note after note, blow after blow. Until he had a song. His song of salvation. Because as he blew into those blades, who should stop by his bench, but her mother.
A’Me looked up at the rustle of a rat. People didn’t pick up their dogs’ shit from the ground, and so the rats always had something to feast on. Señora Torres came out and shooed the rat away.
Those rats are dangerous, A’Me. If they come near you, you have to make a loud noise to scare them away. Do you understand?
A’Me didn’t answer. She kept plucking at the grass.
No va a volver. A’Me muttered. She heard Señora Torres stop breathing.
No…No chicita. No va a volver. Esta con Dios.
She kept tearing apart the green blades. He’d been torn apart by a silver blade. It was what men did. They hunted cobras for Kings. In the name of their families, they went to God.
Pero…lo quiero aqui.
Su espiritu esta aqui, como el espiritu santo esta aqui.
Year after year on the anniversary of his death, Señora Torres told her his spirit was here in Humboldt, just as the Holy Spirit was. But even as she breathed in spring’s fresh life in this lawn, she felt neither him nor Him.
She looked down the length of the fence. It had two no trespassing signs. She hopped it anyways and threw herself down into the grass. The sky was blindingly blue. She twisted her fingers into the grass. She thought of her father. She thought of her sister, how they used to run around Señora Torres’ yard when their parents were working. How when Señora Torres’ husband had a really good week, they would light the grill in their backyard and feed A’Me’s family. The adults told fantastical stories of winged rats in the sky and bugs that lit up the darkness.
She inhaled. Spring rose from winter.
Before long the neighborhood would bloom into a dichotomy of perfectly manicured lawns and neglected-overgrowth of grass. Some yards tinkled and sang with fountains and perfumed the air with roses of every color, while others had weeds and brambles so long their heads hung heavily downwards into the ground. Some homes were owned, and some were rented. Some homes were prized, and some were concessions.
It occurred to her the last she’d seen her sister was when Señora Torres’ yard had roses. He’d come over for the memorial of her husband. He lived in the suburbs now. He talked of winged rats and glowing bugs.
His kids played soccer out in the suburbs. He and A’Me had only played baseball. Every night in the summer the park filled with shouting children wildly swinging bats around, mostly missing balls, but beaming as the sun warmed and colored their skin and sweet ice treats dribbled from the edges of their mouth and down their wrists. They stayed just until the street lamps went on and then rushed home before dark.
Que dia largo, mijos. Her mother would always say on the walk back. She would smile and rub her stomach with a small satisfied whoo, wrap her arms around her children and kiss their heads. They’d crawl into bed, skin prickling with the sun’s heat, say a prayer, and close their eyes as she flicked off the lights.
A’Me’s skin began to prick from the sun although goosebumps were showing slightly. She stood up, texted a hello to her sister, hopped the fence and walked onwards.
A sing-song voice broke A’Me from her trance. It was the hairdresser from down the block. He was walking his elderly Chihuahua. She had never known what to feel about this man. His aura was something between hairdresser and Mafioso. She chose to focus on the hairdresser part and avoid speaking with him for too long.
Hola, A’Me. Como esta hoy?
Bien Tio. Tu?
Todo bien si. A donde vas?
Voy al park.
Me voy en este direction contigo.
Tio followed her down the path. He spoke non-stop for four blocks. Something about the injustice of his last lost job, all vague and blame-placing rhetoric. A’Me nodded along, trying to pay attention in case he actually asked her something. She paused politely to wait as his dog took a shit. She kept herself from checking the time. By all measures she was doing very well to keep her neighbor happy.
Relief washed over A’Me as she looked up to see Tio’s home not two houses away. He, on the other hand, did not seem to notice. He kept talking without any indication of slowing down. She indiscreetly stared at his home as they neared it until finally it loomed over the moment, threatening to disappear behind their backs.
She subtly tilted her head to see if he intended to turn in. He kept talking without breath about his little sister and the prom hair she’d paid for from some amateur at another salon: tacky and expensive. The girl was so lucky to have him she couldn’t even tell.
A’Me had all but lost hope of the conversation ending when, still jabbering away, he veered towards his gate. He shifted direction so naturally A’Me felt she’d somehow missed the memo about joining him to his home. Without dropping a beat, he opened the fence, walked up the steps, and as he clicked open his door waved to her and shouted “hasta luego”.
Staring at the shadow of his presence, A’Me wondered if he’d even finished his story. Come to think of it, she’d been so lost wondering if he was going to accompany her all the way to the park that she hadn’t followed the last two minutes of his monologue. She finally broke from her trance and turned away from his gate. Her cigarette had completely burned away. She set a fresh white tip aflame.
When A’Me looked up from the tip of her cigarette, she saw a tow truck rounding the corner. What a horrible job, she thought. Paid to ruin someone’s day. And yet, people whose car got towed had no one but themselves to blame. Kind of like when a doctor would inevitably tell her she had lung cancer, or so she assumed. There was a catharsis in knowing the worst was yet to come, and even better, to knowing just what the worst looked like.
As the tow truck trundled heavily away from her, it occurred to A’Me that the back of an empty tow truck looked like a cross. It trundled around as if God meant to punish delinquent parkers, and to put fear into those driving behind it. A physical reminder that they we’re all sinners, all waiting to be the next carried away on God’s crucifix.
A’Me considered the cross. Jesus’ end. God’s punishment. Man’s salvation. He, Him, Man. Then Mary. Impregnated without consent. Lucky Joseph stayed. Left to hold Jesus’ withered, limp body, tears streaming down her face. Mary to bury. Mary to grieve. And where the fuck had Joseph gone? A’Me thought of her father. Everything he’d done had been for “them”, “his” family, and yet they buried him. They grieved. And they struggled. Women standing around a grave of men’s decisions with nothing but prayers.
The tow truck trundled away undramatically like a hippo on land.
At Señora Hernandez’ house, A’Me stopped to smell the roses. She gently pinched one between her finger tips and tipped the head against her broad nose. She gave it a little sniff. Carlo’ had bought her a yellow rose and come to her doorstep to ask her out for the first time. It should have been red, she thought upon looking at the small, slightly damaged petals. But she said yes. And he took her out to the best tacos she’d ever eaten. They never tasted as good after that first date though.
She stood, a heaviness sinking into her chest.
A’Me! No toca mis roses por favor hija.
A’Me looked up to see Señora Hernandez waving at her from her door.
Perdoname Señora. A’Me waved back.
Ayudame porfa. Mija tiene que irse al parque. Te vas, si?
How did that woman know everything? A’Me smiled and nodded. Si.
Ya si. Señora Hernandez turned into the house and loudly but not yelling began rapidly speaking. She turned back to the door, signaled for one minute to A’Me and then turned back into the darkness of her home. A’Me hadn’t realized Señora Hernandez had a daughter. And a daughter that needed someone to walk her…
From inside emerged a small girl in a baseball uniform. A’Me could see her massive brown eyes from here, her hair in two neat braids down the front of her flat chest. It was obvious this was not Señora Hernandez’s hija. She belonged to someone else, someone much prettier, someone young enough to produce a seven-year-old. But “mija” she was and would be. Lucky girl.
Señora Hernandez didn’t leave her stoop, but she waited for the small girl to cross the threshold of her gate. A’Me smiled at the gorgeous face that peeked up at her, but the little girl dropped her chin, turned left and began walking to the park. A’Me chuckled softly to herself, waved to Señora Hernandez, and followed.
Como te llama?
The little girl muttered so softly A’Me couldn’t hear. She took a big step to catch up and leaned over. Como?
Mija? A’Me tried keeping up. This small girl motored. No…?
Entiendo. Mia. Me llama A’Me.
The little girl said nothing. Just kept walking. Three blocks of scuffling.
A dog down the street barked angrily as they approached. A’Me couldn’t see it behind the wooden barriers put up by the owner, but she could hear its snarling and see its paws scuffling around madly, even from three houses away. Suddenly, Mia bolted away and towards the fence. Before A’Me could tell what she was doing the girl thrust her small hand between the wooden slats towards the dog.
Mia no! A’Me shrieked and ran up to the girl.
If the dog had had a stomach full of gravel, as her mother used to say about viscous dogs, Mia’s arm would have been gone in an instant. But to A’Me’s surprise, alarm and relief el perro come hotdogs. Her mother had always said happy dogs ate hotdogs. It sniffed and gently licked Mia’s hand.
A’Me stuttered and stopped, flustered. Mia que peligrosa putting tu mano in the fence. No conoces that perro, no se como es. Her brain short circuited from panic. Just, come here. Fuimos. Words of anger and fear whipped through her brain spastically.
Mia looked up at her with those warm brown eyes, soft. Es mi perro.
A’Me stopped. Yours? A’Me looked past Mia at the whimpering dog. It had only three legs. It kept licking Mia’s hand. Vives aqui?
Mia’s hand dropped slightly. She looked through the fence to the house. She shook her head slowly. No todo los dias. Cuando mi mama regrese.
A’Me softened. Only when her mother returned. She held out her hand. Venga.
Mia stared at A’Me’s hand. Bye Chunky. She mumbled softly, and retracting her hand from the fence put it into A’Me’s. Her miniature hand disappeared inside A’Me’s little one.
You play baseball? A’Me asked.
Mia nodded. They were two blocks from the park. The faint sound of children playing reached their ears. The sun wasn’t hanging very high anymore, and as they reached Division, a soft orange glow had begun spreading across the sky.
The baseball field was overrun by children. They bonked heads and piled on top of each other to pick up balls hit off a T. A’Me realized Mia was wearing the same uniform as the other kids. But the Little Cubs scoreboard was full of numbers, all the way into the ninth inning. A’Me all but stopped walking, her heart sinking. Mia let go of A’Me’s hand and ran to the field.
A’Me was ready to see those brown eyes brimming with tears, too late to join into the game. But to her shock, the kids hugged Mia, and without a single word from an adult ushered her to the T. She lifted the bat much larger than herself, and with all her might swung into the ball. It flew over the heads of the infield and all the way to the outfielders, standing two feet behind.
They scrambled and flopped over the ball. They threw it in the complete wrong direction, scuttled after it, picked it up, threw it again, almost in the right direction. Mia, yelling at the kids on base to corre, hit first base, then second, third, and threw her whole body onto home plate. She was out. The team’s third out. But she’d gotten three kids in, and her team was now two points ahead.
The kids cheered and whooped. Mia, as quickly as she’d entered the game, ran away from the field and to A’Me. She spoke rapidly, mostly incoherently. Had A’Me seen her? A’Me crouched down and gently, smilingly, rubbed the patches of dirt away from Mia’s face. The small girl jabbered on, some nonsense story about the other team and why this was such a big win for the kids in blue. A’Me listened.
Purple and pink had quickly flooded the sky. They had turned it into a tumult of empyrean emotion. A’Me slowly stood up as Mia kept babbling on. She took her hand and walked her past the weeping willows and skulking oaks towards the park pond where the sky gave its encore. Then suddenly Mia’s hand whipped away and spinning around she sputtered: que dia! Gracias a Dios!
A’Me smiled down at Mia’s big, expectant eyes.
Si, gracias a Dios. She repeated softly.
Two girls without fathers thanking The Holy Father. A’Me pinched Mia’s braids between her fingertips and gave each a little tug. Mia giggled.
Entiendes a Dios? A’me asked.
Si. Dios es la fuerza, amor, razon. Dios ve todo porque esta en todos lados.
A’Me gave a tilt of the chin and stood up, letting go of Mia’s braids. She rubbed her thumb across another splotch of dirt on the young girl’s face. She wondered when would come Mia’s turn to learn that God was nowhere. That God could not be strength or love or reason because she would never meet a man who reasoned with strong love.
And yet, and yet each Sunday A’Me woke up and went to church while her wise roommate slept off her hangover on the couch. She sat in the pews and listened to the priest and hoped his words would elucidate the meaning of it all, the wisdom there was in this higher being. She sipped her Dunkin Donuts and tried with all her might to understand and kept hoping to know His love.
A’Me looked up to realize Mia was gone. She looked around frantically and then felt a tug on the back of her shirt. She jumped and turned around to see Mia holding out one of spring’s first daffodils, small, fragile and fresh. A’Me took it with a smile.
Gracias a Dios! Ella trae la primavera!
Si! Ella. Mia jumped and twirled around with abandon.
A’Me stared at the flower and then at the little girl.
Quien dijo que Dios es una mujer?
Señora Hernandez. Me dijo este la primera noche que queda con ella. Me dijo que no deberia tener miedo porque Dios nos protege y que Ella siempre me protegeria.
A’Me smiled at the misunderstanding.
Without meaning to, A’Me reached forwards and hugged Mia tightly. She hugged her as if that one gesture could protect her from the world of hurt she would feel as she grew up; the betrayals, the disappointments, the disrespect, the disregard. Everything. She hugged her and felt a tear at the corner of her eye. She squeezed them shut tightly.
God would protect her, and She would always protect her. And when She didn’t, She would give her the strength and reason to carry on. She would love her.
Gracias a Dios.