The Jefita was at that age where she was prone to crying alone over her coffee and first cigarette. She cried for her boy overseas in Vietnam. She cried for her drunk-of-a-boy put out and sleeping in the backroom of the Klamm Shell Lounge. She cried for her marriage.
We need to make the drive, the Jefita said.
I don’t have time for your drives, her husband said draining his cup.
The idea was to make the five-hour pilgrimage from her Bessemer neighborhood in Huerfano, Colorado to the church at Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. The idea was to make the drive in the husband’s Packard and sit in the old church to pray with her people—her mother and her father. It was the only place she felt consoled.
St Francis is down the block, woman, the Jefe answered.
The Jefita was from New Mexico and since she was a young girl the drive to Chimayo and her family church was a pilgrimage, a thing you just did with your people. As a young girl the family would pile into the car with food and drink picnic baskets and thermoses of coffee to sit and pray where the earth was said to be blessed in the hills of Chimayo. The place where Catholics prayed to Santiago, one of the beloved Apostles, and the shrine there. The place where it was said people’s limbs were healed and where her father said, and many other old folks said, they felt young and vibrant after visiting.
That’s horseshit and a half, the Jefe said. I’ve been to war and the boy needs letters from home and not a bunch of people sitting around and wishing at a hole in the ground, he complained.
Please, the Jefita said. He’s only a boy.
I’ll have to take a day off work, woman, for the drive. I’ll miss the pay.
The Jefe lit a cigarette and stepped off the porch. He remembered when he had left for the Army during World War II. The family drove him to the train station and never set foot from the car. Once the Jefe slammed the truckito’s door, the old man was back on the road leaving the Jefe as a boy to sit and stare and wait the nearly five hours for the train to Denver. The old man only thinking of the drive back to Huerfano. Only thinking about the money for gas.
Don’t be so hate filled like your father, the Jefita said. The next morning before dawn the Jefe packed the woman’s sweater and the supplies of coffee and water for the drive. We can sleep at my sisters in Taos, the Jefita said as they pulled from the driveway.
Or you can drive yourself, the Jefe said.
I know you, the Jefita said struggling to light the first cigarette of the day. I know you have love for me.
Try not to burn my upholstery with your ashes, woman, the Jefe answered. That’s what I know.
The hills of Chimayo is where the earth is pink and the sage bushes litter the horizon and the view from the highway. It was the late afternoon of good Friday when the Jefe pulled into the parking lot of the church. The place had changed since he was a younger man. From when his wife was a young woman and the two visited after their marriage in Colorado.
You know my father would walk here from Bernallilo nearly every year carrying a cross on his shoulder, the Jefita said though her husband didn’t ask. He would say, Hija I am carrying this for my dead parents and for you kids and because I want to carry it for me.
That old man was out of his head, the Jefe said plainly.
Don’t you say that about my grandfather. He knew what to do and where to go for the family. He knew. My uncle died in the war then and he knew what to do for the family.
He came because he was a sinner and he loved his damned bottle.
Don’t you say such things. Maybe it’s true but don’t say such things. He knew where to come to be healed.
An old church ain’t going to save nobody. Your boy over there in Vietnam is going to have to save himself. They teach you how to save yourself when you sign up. I should know. The training they give him is what will save him.
No one is trained to die, the Jefita said nearly crying and pleading. I should have walked this year.
What? the Jefe laughed. From Colorado? That’s 250 miles.
I would walk that for my children.
To some place in the middle of nowhere where Penitents once dug a hole?
Yes, the Jefita said. Bernardo Abeyta was cured of all his illnesses. And today I will save my boy.
Shit, the Jefe snorted. Your people will believe anything.
The last thing the Jefe wanted to hear on his good Friday visit to church was that the wife was pregnant. One boy grown and over the ocean and the other oldest boy sleeping in a bar with no work or prospects.
How did this happen, woman? the Jefe said in the parking lot of the church.
I’m pretty sure you understand how these things happen, the Jefita said lighting her third cigarette. I know how it gets done but at our age how could we let this happen.
We’re too damned old for kids. We have grown men as children.
Well, the Jefita said. Well, the last time we were at my people’s and at that church I prayed for our boy going off to the army. I prayed for his life.
You prayed for life, the Jefe said.
Yes, I prayed for life, and I guess God got it turned around. Or maybe God misheard me. The church is small and there were a lot of folks praying. But I told him to bring my first boy to return from Vietnam, and I begged for life. Life for him and not for me. I promised him to return every religious day and here we are. And I have that life inside of me, the life from him now. The doctor confirmed.
Dammit woman, what are you tellin me?
The Jefita gave a look.
You couldn’t pray for a job with better pay or a vacation with pay for me. You had to pray for life.
I just prayed as I always do. Don’t hate me for being a good Catholic.
Ah woman, the Jefe said.
With this news the Jefe decided to stay out of the little church. He chose to smoke cigarette after cigarette in the parking lot. As the people piled past, he smoked until most of the people were inside and behind closed doors and he was let alone standing up against his ancient Packard.
He looked up at the church, and as he waited to smoke, he cursed the situation and the changing times and years and he cursed a God that would allow this birth to happen.
The only other soul was a short-legged man in greasy coveralls limping and raking at the dirt and leaves. He worked and worked until he was in the Jefe’s general area of the parking lot and the two men exchanged nods. No rest for the working man, the Jefe called out in Spanish several times until the man was in range and heard the words. The Jefe found the man’s name to be Michael and that the man found himself in Chimayo, New Mexico after a pilgrimage. He had been working at the church ever since.
Odd jobs, the man said. Under the table from the priest. The man seemed to know everything about the church. The Tewa Indians named the place Chimayo. Did you know that? the man said.
The Jefe shook his head.
There are four sacred hills and Chimayo is one. It’s right behind the church there.
A lot of rocks for sacred land, the Jefe joked.
The Tewa Indians believed they shared the land with supernatural beings. They said the land held healing spirits.
No shit, the Jefe said rolling his eyes.
That is no lie, the man said. And if you come here, you will be healed. So, my family drives here. All the way from Esquipala over the border.
You still have a limp, the Jefe joked.
Yes, I do, the man said stamping his foot. Soon he revealed he could barely work or stand before the trip and now he works on his legs all day.
The Jefe didn’t believe but only handed the man a cigarette and lit him a match.
This land cures the family says and so I come here. And I’ve been working here ever since. The Indians are gone but the dirt still heals they tell me. The Santa Cruz Valley will heal you is what the people say and so now I believe them.
Well, the Jefe said lighting another cigarette. I ain’t seen none of it yet. In fact, I think it’s all bullshit. My wife’s people come here nearly every year and they are both nearly dead with age. My folks are dead and buried and they came here. And my wife asked for life for my boy overseas in the Army and now she’s pregnant.
The man smoked and nodded and gave a little laugh as he flipped his ashes with a flourish out onto the parking lot. The man finally came up with the response. Well, I suppose if you have a worried mind, the man said. Maybe that would jam up the signals. Crosses the prayers to God.
Who was that man? the Jefita said when the service had ended and the prayers on her knees were complete.
He cleans the place.
I saw his broom. I know that but he looked like he was talking to you.
Yeah, he told me he cleans the place. What do you want from me?
You know, Ortiz, the Jefita said suddenly very formal. You talk to me like I’m a damned dog sometimes. You know that?
What? the Jefe said.
You can’t talk to me like I’m half a human being. And with that the Jefita fell into the backseat and wept. She cried for her boy in Vietnam and her husband her faithless husband.
On the highway back to Colorado the Jefe stared through the cracks of the windshield that were like spider webs and finally admitted to his wife about the idea of a worried mind and the idea of mixed-up signals with God.
Makes perfect sense to me, the Jefita said from the backseat. One has faith in a marriage and the other doesn’t have a connection to God and so the communication goes all wrong, no? Unless, the Jefita said…
Unless you don’t believe in God. I just don’t really know what’s in your heart, viejo, the Jefita said.
Viejo, the Jefe laughed. I believe in what is real and what I can see and what I can hold. What I can reason and think on.
Then why take me to church?
If I don’t, you complain and complain for days and days and I want to save myself from all that, the Jefe said.
Your mother was the most church going woman. You know? Always at St Francis in the morning. And your father sat on the porch and smoked and complained. So it don’t surprise me to think of you as faithless. I don’t know why it surprises me. Men and their stupid ways. You’d think you’d pray for your boys and your baby on the way. Believe or no believe this belly is going to grow.
At a gas station in Fort Garland the two ate salty potato chips and shared a ginger ale in silence.
I guess I don’t care if you don’t believe, the Jefita said as she passed over the can and the Jefe drained down what remained.
No? the Jefe said.
I only want you to love the boys and to love me. Don’t you love?
Would I have taken off work and would I have driven all damned day and night if I didn’t have love for you.
But you never say the words, the Jefita said. That’s what I really pray for.
I work and I care for you. Cook your meals so you can eat. Catholics are supposed to serve, no? Don’t I serve?
I guess you do, the Jefita said.
Well then have faith in me if you love faith so damned much. When I stop cleaning up and paying the mortgage and then you can say I don’t love.
Back on the road the Jefita started into a bag of pinon nuts as the Jefe drove. They remained silent until they just about reached the Colorado border.
Are you happy to be back home, the Jefe said as he smoked and zipped along the highway.
Colorado is not my home, the Jefita said.
What are you talking about, mujer? the Jefe said. We have a house and a life and kids and a marriage.
I have a house, yes. And two grown boys and one on the way but Colorado ain’t my home.
Here we go, the Jefe said.
What? My mother and father are from the hills of Chimayo.
I know that, the Jefe said.
Well, we don’t drive back to see a church. It’s part of it but it ain’t the whole reason. I’m saying religion ain’t the whole reason.
To see your mama and your papa then.
Yes, the people you barely grunt at. Yes, but the hills there are my home. The people who walk for miles and who come to the little church. They know what is home. They know.
Nothing but rocks and sagebrush in those hills.
Sagebrush when it blooms is the most beautiful thing I can imagine. Those hills where I was raised. All that is in me. And in my boy in Vietnam and my boy sacked out at a bar because you won’t let him in the house. That little boarded up house in Chimayo where my mama and papa have always lived. That is my home. Those people there are my love and my life and they gave me what I needed to be in this world. Even if it is just rocks and dirt and sagebrush as you say. Sagebrush will burn and keep you warm in the winter is what my old man used to say. My papa. The blessed earth will keep you healthy. And I am confident now that my boy Relles will come home to me from the war because of this blessed earth. I put some of the dirt in his pants pockets and in his shoes. Before he left.
You what? the Jefe said nearly spitting and laughing.
I said I put New Mexico dirt in his pants and in his suitcase.
That’s crazy, woman.
No, the Jefita said. Don’t you say that. After all I said to you don’t you say that. Maybe I did it more for myself than for him but it will save him just the same.
As they drove on, the Jefita became more and more agitated with her husband and his lack of belief. She squinted out onto the wet looking two-lane flat top. Near Antonito the Jefe broke the silence, mentioned to no one in particular that area of southern Colorado used to be called the lost territory.
Can you believe that? the Jefe said. The aspens and the skies skipping past seemed to remind him of the last book he skimmed. He was always plugging away at books he hid away under the bed.
You know the kind of person I am, the Jefita said. She used her husband’s last name to show her disapproval and disconnection from his bloodline if even in her own mind. I’m the kind of person, when I was pregnant with your boys, I took classes down at the hospital. I wanted to know what was coming and what I was in for. When I said to you I wanted my driver’s license, I walked down to the junior college and sat and learned the whole motor vehicle guide. Driver Education they called it. And when I wanted to plant my garden, I spent weeks with the old folks learning about the soil from your father and mother.
Yeah, the Jefe said. What does that have to do with anything.
Well out first born son is in Vietnam and we haven’t heard from him. A few letters a year old and no calls or nothing.
Yeah, I told you no news is good news.
That’s what you said but that’s not much guidance. I want to go down to my people’s church where I was born and raised and I want to pray and all I hear from you is that the whole thing is nonsense. The tradition is empty and I am a damned fool for going and believing.
Yeah, the Jefe said.
Well, I am preparing myself.
For death, the Jefe said. To get your spirit right.
I am preparing for my boy’s death. My boy.
What? the Jefe said nearly laughing.
Lucy Venuda’s boy is gone. And my sister’s boy.
Lupito? the Jefe said. No. No, he’s on the west coast.
He went to the marines and now he’s dead. Lucy’s boy and my sister and I read the paper every morning, same as you. I watch the news every night, same as you. I’m not so dumb as you say. Or make me out to be. Saying I believe in dirt. Well maybe I do believe in dirt but I know the odds are he’s not coming home. The last drive to Denver where we took him to Denver to the airport could be the last time I see him the last time I run my hand through his hair or touch his face. I’m not so dumb. I’m preparing you bastard of a man. That’s what my mother called you. Called you a bastard. Not because of how you are but because of how you think of me and my people from the town where the earth is blessed. Thinking you’re better than me and my skinny mama and my drunkard father as you say. Well skinny or drunk they sit in church with me and without you helping me prepare for what everyone says is coming.
Now, listen, woman, the Jefe said.
I ain’t listening to you no more. My boy is over in the war and I am readying myself. And so should you be getting right with God, getting right with your boys.
When the two finally made it home and back in the driveway on Spruce Street, the Jefita ran right into the house and the bedroom and she threw herself into a peaceful sleep. The Jefe stretched his legs and leaned against the Packard taking in the neighborhood and early evening skies. He lit his last cigarette of the day before finally deciding to play stickball with the boys of the neighborhood and running down the alley after their screams.