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Espíritu Santo

By Sergio Troncoso

Drawings by Jorge Enciso

Horned. White sputum ejaculating from the abyss of blackness on the contorted face. Arms upraised toward her like blood-red streams gushing from the eight-foot hulk of ghastly malevolence. Maldito Demonio! Get away from my house!" Doña Dolores Rivero hissed in a creaky scream, her own eyes aglare with the image of the evil spirit outside. "Dios en el cielo, please help this poor old woman!" She yanked the wooden crucifix off the nail on the wall next to her fold-out bed. The defeated manchild, with His bloody crown of thorns, quivered against her full breasts and the sheer emerald gauze of her nightgown. "Save me, mi Dios. Please slay this son of Lucifer!" she cried, tightly clenching her eyes shut to the edge of a schizoid blackout. Doña Dolores peered again through her window down to the garden one floor below. She twisted her head to see beyond the thick evergreen bushes abutting her apartment wall. She thought she found a wisp of crimson smoke drifting up into the nothingness of the desert stars. But really, only the wan amber from the streetlight sifted into the shadows, the darkness barely alight. She kissed Jesus on the holy forehead and hung Him up anew to keep a vigil for Lucifer's princes while she slept. She pulled the flowered plastic curtains closed, knelt by her bed, and breathlessly chanted three Hail Marys, glancing at the clutter of framed photographs of her children and grandchildren on the ramshackle dresser. Alone in bed, the gray-haired viejita pulled the coverlet over her head, losing herself in the cave of a halcyon reprieve.

In the morning, Doña Dolores fired up a burner on her stove and clanked down a teapot half-full of water over the blue flame. Three lonely sparks dissipated in the complex of pipes and wires beneath the fire. After the steam shrieked through the hole barely larger than the eye of a needle, she shot up from a shockable stare. She spooned into her cup two heaps of a chocolate coffee powder that seemed to have a universe of stars sprinkled therein. Doña Dolores drank a gulp that dropped through her throat like a column of apocalyptic fire. She bent over and found a certain deep notch on a splintered two-by-four in front of her kitchen fireplace mantel. Snapped off one end of the wood with a stamp of her foot that rattled the etched mirror behind the mantel cherry. The piece in hand, she fitted it slantwise into the aluminum frame of the kitchen window and jammed it home. The glass cracked a jagged hypotenuse in one corner of the window. That window was now forever shut. From a Petro Truckstop ashtray on the mantel shelf, she plucked out a cross of palms from a pile of such palm crosses, all blessed and empowered with holy water by Father Emilio Magaña of the Sacred Heart Church on Saint Vrain Street, across from Benny's Tacos y Burritos.

Doña Dolores picked up the other half of the two-by-four and the rusted handsaw she had borrowed from Don Epifanio Mendoza in Apartment Three. She bulled forward through the dead air in the hallway and the bedroom, one implement pendulous in each hand as if she were some aged terminatrix savoring her choice of weapons against an unlucky opponent. The bedroom window was already jammed shut. So was the window in the bathroom. Palm crosses sanctified the light from the impurities and perversities not just of El Segundo Barrio --those she could mostly take care of herself-- but also from this nether world impregnate with the malignant spirit. She and palm crosses and two-by-fours against the world. Doña Dolores sat down on her reading chair and peered around her apartment one more time. Maybe she was finally done. "¡Ay, Dios de mi vida!" She shot up from her chair and marched to the living room window. One lapse, one mistake, and she would be prostrate before Lucifer's machinations! What was she thinking? The piece of wood in her hand was three fingers too long for this frame.

 

"Vámonos, Don Epi. Are you ready?"

No answer from behind the screen door. Doña Dolores couldn't quite make out if that was a man or a shadow draped over the lime loveseat inside Apartment Three. The El Paso sun, a screech of whiteness that pierced every crevice and slant with an explosion and fallout of photons, bounced off the screen door and shimmered into her eyes. She was cold. The wicked November wind seemed to swirl around her like a sentient desert twister and purposefully shoot up under her coat and between her legs. She slammed her fist on the wrought iron diamonds.

"Don Epi!" The shadow stirred, its turtlelike face lit by a streak of sun.

"Doña Lola. I am ready," Don Epifanio said, pushing open the screen door and walking out. Compared to the battle-ready air about Doña Dolores, the old man seemed frail and trapped in slow motion. Indeed, he was eighty-nine-years-old, once a teenager and young soldier who had ridden with the Villistas at León, Guanajuato, in 1915. Don Epifanio had lost most of his left arm on a day just like today, leaving him with just a flipperlike stump. But at least for one miraculous moment, he had seen el General Villa, who had joked to the private about the sexual compromises that had been forced upon Obregón with his own mangled limb. Don Epifanio still remembered the phenomenal rush of pride that had practically raised him off the ground when Villa had touched his wounded shoulder goodbye. From that moment on, Epifanio Mendoza had known in his heart that he had sacrificed not nearly enough for the revolution.

"Well, aren't you going to close the door, señor? Or should I print some invitations for a cholo open house at your place?"

"What? Oh, yes. I forgot, Lolita. My mind is elsewhere today." He locked the door. They shuffled down Olive Street and turned southward on Saint Vrain to cross Paisano in front of the Gedunk Bar. Its neon orange lights palpitated against an absolute black wall. Doña Dolores steadied Don Epifanio over the six inches of curb at the corner. The gutters were littered with shards of burnt sienna glass, flattened condoms like disemboweled earthworms, a Chevy muffler, and the crushed and powdery carcass of a pigeon.

"Are you hungry, Don Epi? María Elena and the girls are cooking pavo and pumpkin pies and mashed potatoes and, of course, stuffing. As much as you want."

"Oh, yes. Tengo mucha hambre," he said, his beady brown eyes riveted on the ground in front of him. Don Epifanio was famous for being a bottomless pit. No one knew how he managed to stuff tortilla after tamale after tostada into that thin, hunched frame. For hours and hours! Sure, each lady was proud of her cooking, but not one of them had the vanity to think that that was the real reason behind this man's miraculous feasting. The speculation was that revolucionarios were all voracious. Somehow, their molecules had speeded up into a permanent frenzy. It was indeed true that the old man could sweat something beyond even powerful.

"You know, your girlfriend Lupita will be there too."

"Oh, really," he said, straightening out his plaid clip-on tie.

"Yes. She told me this year El Centro will have music while we eat our cena. Isn't that something?"

"That's very good, I think. Do you think Lupita would dance with me if I asked her?"

"I'm sure she would. But it's classical music, Don Epi, not redovas or polkas."

"Oh, I see."

"Yes, it's a young man from Baltimore. He plays the violin or the cello, I'm not sure. He only plays for viejitos like us. Has a thing called Music Alert, an organization of some sort."

"Too bad. Maybe he knows a good dancing tune on his fiddle. You know, before my fingers got too stiff with arthritis I used to play el acordeón. Music for stomping out the night on a Chihuahua ranch. That and a fiddle was all you needed to be happy."

"You should ask him at the party," Doña Dolores said, smiling. They trudged along Fourth Street. A wholesale warehouse was across the silent street. An ink black smear of slush opened out into the asphalt from underneath the gigantic gate of corrugated metal as if some secretory monster slug had lumbered to and fro. Three more blocks to reach El Centro, the activity center for senior citizens. From around a corner about half a block away, two young men walked toward them. One wore a T-shirt and what looked like the rainbow of a sarape draped over his shoulders. The other had on a red flannel shirt and a bandanna around the crown of his head. The cholos whispered something to each other and laughed, prancing a menacing gait, gangly, rhythmic, a terrible sway to tempt the gods or anyone else on the streets who might want to taste acrid immortality. "Ay, Dios. Don Epifanio, you stay close to me."

"Let's see what you've got, rukíto," the bandanna blurted out, rifling through Don Epifanio's trouser pockets while the old man raised his hand in fearful bewilderment. His stump was shaking inside the long empty sleeve of his windbreaker.

"Leave us alone! We've got nothing! Please, por Dios, just leave us alone!" Doña Dolores pleaded to the sarape alert in front of them as if to prevent the rabbits from bolting into the alfalfa thickets.

"Give it to me."

"What?"

"La bolsa."

"¡Nunca! You should be ashamed of yourselves!"

"Give it to me or you're dead, bitch!" the sarape bellowed in her face, yanking at the purse clutched beneath her arms. He punched her viciously. Doña Dolores collapsed backward and hit the nape of her neck against the chainlink fence in front of the abandoned lot where Kiko's Launderette used to be. The purse was inert on her left knee. The sarape picked it up and dumped the lipstick and tissues and the compact her nieto had given her for her sixtieth cumpleaños. The rosary with the silver crucifix from Rome, eyeliner, a bottle of Tylenol, five quarters, pennies and dimes, two of the old Mexican pesos engraved with the handsome face of José María Morelos, who once had also worn a bandanna on his head, but for a purpose. Her Le Sportsac pocketbook. The sarape zipped open the pocketbook and grabbed the thirty-three dollars folded neatly into a large paperclip.

Malvados! ¡Salvajes! You should be ashamed of attacking old people!" she yelled at their backs as they strode away. The bandanna whipped his muscled torso around and jabbed an ugly middle finger toward the sky. Doña Dolores stared up into the sun. Don Epifanio was shaking convulsively, incontinent, the stains of tears nearly dry on his face. Doña Dolores clawed at the chainlink and raised herself up. The right side of her face felt numb. When she patted it with her fingers, it was puffy like a cotton ball, tender like the meat she pounded with the plane of tiny pyramids of her hammerlike tenderizer. She tasted the bitterness of her blood at the back of her mouth. "Don Epi, are you all right? Señor, please calm down. We're alive. That's what matters."

"I didn't defend you. I'm a useless old fool. Just look at me!"

"Don't worry. We'll clean you up in the bathroom before we go into the auditorium for the cena," she said, picking up her belongings from the sidewalk. Her Matte Épice lipstick was crushed on the ground like a glob of butter on bread.

"I didn't do anything. I'm useless, an invalid coward."

"Don't say such things, Don Epi! It's not your fault. Who knows? Maybe if I had been alone the evil spirit might have pushed them to commit even more unspeakable atrocities. You saved me from that, Don Epi. That's what you did."

"You think so? Really?"

"I know it, señor. I know what these cholos are capable of. They're heartless. They have no use for God in their empty souls."

"Well, can I admit something to you, a secret?"

"Of course."

"I was scared."

"We both were. The most courageous people are scared. If you're not, then you don't know the danger you're up against."

"You're right, Doña Lola. The Villistas always said that Álvaro Obregón cried just before every batalla. He cried getting ready for a fight. We cried after he nearly massacred all of us at León. I'd rather cry like him."

"Don Epi, you know what? I think I know where those malditos live. On Paisano and Stanton. That's where I saw the one with the sarape fixing his car last month. When you go into the bathroom at El Centro, I'll call the police. We'll see if those sinvergüenzas rob anyone else."

"Señora, you look like Jersey Joe after Marciano got through with him. You were the brave one. That I know."

 

The orange dusk fell on Doña Dolores's apartment like the glow of embers on a lonely campfire. Outside, the halfway house across the street was quiet for once. The wretched drug addicts and young hooligans had already retired behind the whitened windows of the first floor and the bedrooms above, their silhouettes immobile. Some were on the roof, gazing at the street below like gargoyles crouched in anticipation of the first light. She had already clicked her deadbolt closed, pushed her sofa on wheels flush against the door. The front drapes were pinned shut with paperclips and long needles. She called Don Epifanio to check that he was safely nestled in his own apartment, reminding him to lock both bolts on his cagelike screen door and to be certain that the four burners on his stove were exactly vertical. Last week Doña Dolores had visited him on a Sunday morning to read El Diario de Juárez and the El PasoTimes together, with a cup of coffee and the banana bread she had baked the night before. She had smelled gas as soon as she had stepped inside his apartment, a faint but definite odor of rotten eggs in the musty air. Sure enough, Don Epi had left one burner on. Now he seemed fine. Doña Dolores laid the receiver down with a soft plastic click. The room was now more gray than orange. She turned on the living room and bedroom lights.

She took out the readings Father Magaña had given her at El Centro, at the cena. The priest had brought them there at her request, having planned to give her some preliminary explanations of these difficult biblical passages. But then he had been taken aback by her fresh facial injuries, the lump of magenta, the languid bloodshot eye. "My Lord, what is the world coming to?" he gasped out loud. Father Magaña had forgotten to list the possible scholarly interpretations of evil in the Bible, whether it was figurative or real, how Saint Augustine had answered the problem of evil in the City of God, if evil and the good were somehow inseparable antipodes of God's system for man. The horrified young curate had also forgotten to ask why it was that such matters had concerned Doña Dolores in the first place. Suddenly these things had seemed unimportant and even stupid. Doña Dolores had assured him that she was okay, just a bit sore. She had thanked the young priest and squeezed his hand tenderly. She would find out what was what by herself.

Sitting contently on the green plastic cushions of her reading chair next to the fireplace, Doña Dolores read about the fall of man into evil, in Genesis. Why did Adam and Eve choose evil? Were they already flawed in some way before that choice? That couldn't be. Here it said clearly: "And they were both naked, the man and the woman, and were not ashamed." And here: "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." No, Adam and Eve, as created originally, were perfectly good. They would have lived forever, were it not for Satan the snake. Moreover, it was also clear that God Himself created the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, created it and planted it in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve. That much was also clear. So it seemed that God's world already included the possibility of evil, that this world was not perfect to start with. From the beginning, this world already possessed a prohibition, namely that one should not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Indeed, man did not introduce evil into God's world. Doña Dolores thought about this for a while, why good human beings were put in a world full of possible dangers.

It would be strange, she thought, if God had done this to play a trick on humans, to trap and humiliate them out of some perverse joy. God wasn't mischievous like her grandson Arturo. It was also clear that human beings could be good, but often were not, for whatever reason. So just as the world was full of possible dangers, human beings were full of possible evils. What exhorted the world and humans toward the good, and against evil? It seemed that they could drift easily from one place to another, like boats lost at sea. Adam and Eve did discover the snake, so maybe they could be good, but not perfectly so. If they had been perfect, they would never have chosen to eat Satan's apple in the first place. Maybe they were like children, Doña Dolores thought. If you allowed little ones to act badly at the beginning, soon they would know of no other way to act. You couldn't try to change persons who had acted badly for years and years. This evilness became a part of their character. But it didn't have to end up that way. They just needed a good beginning. But maybe the good beginning would be forever lost if no one could defend why one should have a good beginning in the first place. No one was perfect to start with. That was certain. But we lost even the sense of perfection the more all of us acted badly. In such a cruel world, acting in a good way would become a joke. Why should one be good to begin with? That was the unanswerable question. There was no "answer" but faith. Doña Dolores touched the tenderness of her cheek with the tips of her fingers, stood up, and folded a washcloth around four cubes of ice. The sting of the coldness receded. A serenity with the sensation of a stream diffused over the pointed ache.

 

Soon she fell asleep in her chair, and Genesis slipped off her lap and swooped down in an arc across the floor. Doña Dolores dreamed she was riding a black stallion across a campo dotted with pecan trees, careening through the landscape in a breathless rush at nightfall. The scent of irrigated alfalfa in the fields electrified the wind. The horizon of the Sierra Madre Mountains glorified the plains below with a path to the heavens. An eagle, as if confirming this, glided down playfully from a mountaintop, in circles and twists and precipitous plunges. The machinelike horse seemed a part of her. Its chest and haunches exploded with muscle. Its massive blue black head huffed and swayed as if to exhort the rider into an experience of heaven, like a would-be Pegasus. Suddenly, she heard a clicking noise behind her. A sharp staccato "Click, Click, Click, Click." She turned her head. Behind her, riding on the equine rump, a child sat with its arms reaching to grab her waist. A sinister smile on its face. The fingers contorted like talons. Its teeth snapping together like a puppet's. "Do you want my apple?" the child ghoul repeated to her mantralike.

Doña Dolores opened her eyes. Her living room was raven-black. She fumbled for the knob of her reading lamp, flicked it on and off, and nothing happened. She tried the light switch on the wall next to the TV set. That wasn't working either. She walked back to her reading chair, bumping hard against the metal tube frame with her left shin. Wincing. She rubbed her leg before moving again in this murk. Her legs were sweaty. Beyond the window, on Saint Vrain Street, the streetlights were out. All the red brick tenements and warehouses were blue black under the moon's glow. The State National Bank, about a mile away, stood like a giant rectangular black hole guarding the pyramids of the Franklin Mountains. Doña Dolores found the box of Diamond matchsticks in her purse and lit the three votive candles in front of the picture of the Virgin Mary on her living room fireplace mantel. She found the box of Purísima candles from Juárez underneath her bed, and some cups and saucers in the kitchen. She scattered the candlelight around her apartment, first to the kitchen table and then to the bureau in her bedroom. The little flames seemed frightened in the thick of this abyss.

At once, her front door rattled wildly, as if some desperate intruder had locked its fingers in the wrought iron to rip it off its hinges. Doña Dolores sat back in her reading chair and crossed herself to plead protection in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Espíritu Santo. A gust of air crashed down through the chimney flue and, apparently animate, swirled in the dead space just below the ceiling, inflamed. A ghastly countenance metamorphosed out of the vermilion matter, screeching at her like a cloud of a thousand sparrows trapped in a fire. The yellow eyes bulged with the thrill of a killing and rolled in their sockets. She breathed in gasps, her torso and legs frozen in near catatonia. The demon's mouth widened into a chasm so dark and engulfing that she forgot the face behind it. Out of its blackness spewed forth first a trail and then a vomit-cloud of flames sulfurous. This wall of blasphemy exploded in front of her face and spawned an ontological hell around her. A cavern of baroque evil spirits, aggrieved serpents, demigods, and shapeless furies. "God save me! ¡Dios, no me abandones! I beg of you, please! Save me!" she uttered gutturally, choking on her pleas, clutching at her breast and fingering the little Christ on the Cross suspended around her neck on a limp chain.

Lucifer's giant face took on a body in mid-air, one tortured with the thrust of metal stakes driven through the outstretched claws and limp feet. An amalgam of chicken, human, and lizard. The Antichrist on its own invisible cross, laughing hideously at her as if to belie all existence of the holy. Swirls of fire like errant kites. Boils and fumes emanating from deep within the earth, like a disease and its malodors from a wretched epidermis. An earthquake underneath her body. Her hope lost. A final persistent ringing. This sonority a respite before her imminent plunge into this extravagance of evil. A ringing again. Angelic ringing. A bell to save her? A straightforward drumbeat of ringing. One final taunt from Lucifer? Doña Dolores opened her eyes again. Lucifer and his princes vanished. A final wisp of smoke wafted gently through the air like a string pulled lazily around by a beetle. Her apartment seemed intact, even quiet. The only movement was the flicker of the flames from the votive candles. That ringing again. She stood up, bumped into a chair, still stupefied, and picked up the phone.

 

 "Doña Dolores. Can you hear me?"

"What?"

"I said, 'Can you hear me, señora?' Are you all right in there?"

"Yes. Yes, I'm fine, Don Epi."

"I just woke up and my lights were out. No electricity. Same with you?"

"Yes, no lights. The whole downtown seems dark. Maybe some sort of accident."

"That's probably right, señora. You're not worried, are you?"

"About what?"

"The lights. That they'll be rioting here like in Los Angeles. Didn't New York City have a riot some years ago when the lights went out?"

"Yes, I think so. But that won't happen here. El Paso is still a good town, more or less. Don't worry, Don Epi. Most of the people here are still gente decente."

"You're right, I'm not going to worry. You know what woke me up, Lolita? A noise. From your place, I thought. A noise like a lion's roar, and laughing. I thought I heard very loud laughing. Maybe I was dreaming. I stood up from my couch and there was nothing coming through your wall. Nothing at all."

"Oh, I see."

"Yes. When I heard the laughing, in my dreams I thought you were in trouble. Isn't that strange? That's why I called so late. It's almost midnight, you know."

"Yes, I know. But I'm glad you called, Don Epi. You call whenever you want, you hear? Don't worry about waking me up. I always like to hear the voice of a friend."

"Thank you, señora. You are very kind. Well, I hope I see you tomorrow."

"Of course. Why don't you come over for an early dinner or late lunch. I'm making flautas and arroz con garbanzos."

"Okay. I'll bring an apple pie from Entenmann's. The one with crunch. I bought it two days ago when I cashed my check."

"That's perfect. I'll see you then. Buenas noches, señor."

"Que duerma con los angelitos. Goodnight, Doña Dolores."

The old man clunked the receiver down and scratched his head. His crooked arm reached out into the soupy darkness, and the stump mimicked its counterpart by dangling further out from his hunched shoulders, athwart. He walked tentatively forward, finding first the rickety coffee table near the sofa and then the smooth open archway to the kitchen and at last the refrigerator door. He tugged at it weakly. When it finally gave way, it slipped out of his hand and crashed into the wall. He held the door wide open, a sheet of cold darkness spilled out. Patting the gnarled hand of his good arm on each shelf, he found the flat box of Entenmann's apple pie, his absolutely favorite culinary delight, and opened the lid. ¡Ay, Chihuahua! he thought, I've already eaten more than half of it.

Don Epifanio held the box aloft for a second, pondering in the milky carbon black whether he should do what he wanted to do. Whether it was right. Of course it was. Certainly he could ask Her about the pie even if he still had money from his government check this month. It's just that he didn't want to walk to the Safeway by himself tomorrow, with his food money in his pocket. It was Obregón's fear again. That's the only reason he would ask Her now. So he carefully slid the half-eaten apple pie out of the box and wrapped it in aluminum foil and pushed it back into the refrigerator shelf at the bottom. Then the old man carried the empty cardboard box to the kitchen table. Just above the sugar packets, on the rough surface of the plaster wall, an oblong shadow with jagged edges, like a massive tortoise shell, seemed to dance gently as if on water- a vision of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Kneeling beside the table, he pushed the box just under the Virgin's downcast eyes, two slits of light in the darkness. Don Epifanio crossed himself and prayed.

After a while, it came to him. During his third prayer. The idea. Of course that was it! Why hadn't he thought of this before? Oh yes! That was the reason why he had Her. Never had She failed him. His eyes suddenly opened wide and fixed on the bananas. Four black, terribly over-ripe bananas. The ones he had often smeared on toast with peanut butter. The bananas! Today at El Centro he had received a small box of food, with three cans of soup, rice, butter, peas, corn, two cans of tuna, and the oddest thing, a bag of chocolate chips, semi-sweet. What in the world am I going to do with those? he had thought. Hah! Of course, it had been a while since he had turned his oven on. But he remembered the recipe well. Sugar, butter, baking soda, baking powder, eggs, flour, chocolate chips, and ripe bananas! He had all of these now. It would take some time to get everything ready. But what else was he going to do tonight in this darkness? Of course, the Virgin would also have to remind him to turn off the stove after he was done. But that would not be a problem.

By morning, the banana chocolate bread had cooled atop the stove. It was just about the best banana chocolate bread he had ever seen. Richly dark brown. The top rising just enough to hint at the delicious morsels inside. Even Doña Dolores exclaimed, when they were sitting down to eat the next day, that she had never tasted a more wonderful bread. When had he learned to bake, anyway? Oh, he said, it was just something my wife --God rest her soul-- taught me years ago. Don Epifanio didn't tell her he had already been handy with the skillet during the revolution. But that was okay. It wasn't the important thing. It was much better just to enjoy this beautiful afternoon together.


"Espíritu Santo" originally appeared in T-Zero Writers' Annual. Copyright 1998 by Sergio Troncoso. It is one of the twelve stories in The Last Tortilla and Other Stories.

Other short stories: A Rock Trying to be a Stone, Angie Luna, and The Snake.

Listen to Sergio Troncoso talk about his novel, The Nature of Truth, on National Public Radio: NPR Interview on Latino USA. Click here for discussion questions.

Essays: Terror and Humanity, Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories?, and A Day Without Ideas.