A Modern Assumption

virgin mary

The first time I realized that some crazy stuff was going on was when Hector, the Honduran who does the gardening for my apartment rental business, let on that one of my tenants was Mary, mother of Jesus. Or more like the way he made it sound: MARY, MOTHER OF JESUS.

Really?

That’s what they say.

Who says?

Lot of people in town saying it. Word gets around. You know the young girl from Jalisco in 7C on Fremont? Wears rubber boots all the time? Doesn’t shave her legs? They say she’s the Virgin Mary, Boss.

Yeah?

Yeah. Now that it’s time for Jesus to return to earth because of all the messes we’re in, and on account of what is written in the bible, she has come in order to give birth to him. Pretty far out — she being reincarcerated and living here in Indio of all places.

You mean reincarnated.

Yeah, you got it.

You believe this, Hector?

How would I know? If Jesus really is coming again he’s gonna have to get to earth some way. I don’t think he’s gonna come back in a spaceship or something. Getting born seems only natural. That’s how he got here last time. So, he’ll need a mother for that.

Is she pregnant?

She don’t look it.

Does she ride a donkey?

You’re a funny man, boss. Always ready with a joke.

Even though this was the first time I had heard the Mary-Mother-of-Jesus rumors, I knew which girl he was referring to. I only have 36 rental units to keep track of. Her name was Maria Contrados and she had been renting a second floor studio from me since the beginning of summer. I did think she was a bit out of the ordinary when I showed her the apartment. My feeling then was that she was unusually intense, and I too had wondered about the rubber boots — you know, in this heat. But she was well-mannered and she had her deposit with her in cash. She wore braces as well, which meant she must have had some money. I didn’t ask for her life story. Three months rent in advance is all I ask.

Hector’s a good man. And he’s a conscientious worker. But you can never be sure if he’s serious or not. He comes up with some pretty nutty stuff, and you know Hispanics have this thing about religion. You can either give them credit for being open-minded, or knock them for being easily duped and superstitious, but they have a natural born appreciation for the spiritual, that’s for sure, including spirituality of the zanier sort. You’ll notice I’m saying they, even though I’m half-Latino myself.

Despite my heritage, I’m not much for otherworldly phenomena: the hocus-pocus and old-wives tales. My mother, who was from Taxico, believed in ghosts and angels and palm readers and all that crap, but my Dad would have none of it and I take after him in that respect. I try to be scientific and skeptical, always looking for the card up the sleeve or the hidden wires. Naturally, I didn’t for a second consider the feasibility of what Hector was saying. He might have just as well told me my wife was having an affair with the Easter bunny. Like I said, You hear strange shit from that guy all the time.

My property on Fremont where Maria Contrados lived borders on the southeastern edge of La Quinta. La Quinta is all about luxurious living in a big way. But Fremont Street is not in La Quinta — it’s in Indio, and the people who live there do drudge work for the wealthy homeowners of Indian Wells, Palm Desert, La Quinta, and the other affluent communities between here and Palm Springs. They clean homes and pools, wait on tables, man the checkout counters in food markets. They wash other people’s SUVs, and work as orderlies and nurses in hospitals and rest homes they themselves could never afford to be treated in. From the back windows of the Fremont building my tenants can entertain themselves watching the leisured classes rolling along in their golf carts on the 17th hole of the Los Feliz country club, one of 125 golf courses in this valley.

There is no rule in golf that says you have to be good at it in order to get out on the course and tear up grass and whack balls every which way. You just have to have a lot of free time, and serious money for the green fees. You have to know how to press the accelerator pedal on a golf cart (golfers don’t walk anymore) and, if you’re smart, you dress in bright colors like hunters in the woods so the players behind you hold their fire until you’ve sunk your putt.

The Los Feliz fairway being so close to my property, I lose a couple of windows to golf balls every week. I’ve complained, of course, and Los Feliz has put up a fence, but the balls still come flying in. You might find it ironic that the golfers are taking pot shots at the living quarters of their gardeners and maids, breaking their windows and pottery and all, but my tenants don’t mind. They’re happy to gather up those Titleists and Top Flites and sell em back to the country clubs who reuse them on their driving ranges.

I’ve overheard Fremont residents tell people they lived on a golf course in La Quinta. While this slight alteration of municipal boundaries might notch-up their status at a Las Casuelas Banda Night or a church social, it won’t get them anywhere when filling out credit applications at Walmart or Target. Those outfits have databases that know where the true lines are drawn.

I didn’t give Hector’s comments much consideration. Maria Contrados paid her rent on time, and like I said, that’s what counts. Of course if she was a looney I would have to keep my eyes open, because loonies can get out of hand and cause damage. I had a family in a unit on San Clemente who trashed their apartment before taking off to god knows where, leaving me with a bunch of bounced checks. It turns out they were in some sort of sect that practiced ritual animal sacrifice — indoors to boot. Took me a month to clean up the mess they made. New rugs, new paint. The whole works.

On October 22nd, a date I remember because I was home watching the third game of the World Series, I got a phone call from a woman who said it was her civic duty to inform me about what was going on in one of my apartments. She presented herself as Mrs. Alvarez. Mrs Alvarez had a severe, nasal-toned voice, bolstered with the gravity of her message. Skipping conventional pleasantries, she got straight to the point:

Sir, I am calling to inform you that you have a woman practicing witchcraft on your property, and we have information that she’s holding public seances there.

I also remember that in getting up to answer the phone I had just missed a game-decisive Tony Hernandez homerun. Behind my back I could hear the crowd going wild and the commentators’ high-pitched excitement. Instead of witnessing that historic event I was listening to some idiot on the phone. I was pretty pissed off about that.

What on earth are you talking about?

Her name is Maria Contrados and she lives in your apartment house on Fremont.

I’m sorry lady, but nobody on Fremont is bothering anybody and I don’t have the slightest idea what you mean by seances. I think you’ve got the wrong person, and definitely the wrong landlord.

She is undocumented.

What business is that of yours? Are you from immigration or something?

Do you believe in God, Mr Bletcher?

I believe in baseball and you are calling at a very inopportune moment, lady. You ever heard of an event called the World Series?

We just wanted to let you know.

Who is we?

The Defenders of the Sacred Heart.

What in the hell is that?

Please mind your language, Mr. Bletcher. We’re a volunteer organization at St Josephs. We thought you should know.

Great. Now I know, and please don’t call here again.

In California a landlord is not required to ask for a tenant’s passport or green card. They’re talking about changing the law, but it’s not my opinion that human beings with the courage to brave considerable hardship in search of a fairer share of life’s bounty should be treated worse than anyone else. I wouldn’t be here if my own mother hadn’t made that crossing, even if in those days it was a lot easier. Take a look around down here and you’ll see that it’s the undocumented workforce that have made this place tick.

Nor do I give a hoot if my tenants are buddhists or muslims or mormons or scientologists or whatever, as long as they pay their rent and don’t do vivisection on their neighbors’ pets in my living rooms. But as I tried to get back into focusing on the game, the thought lingered in my mind that I probably should, just to be on the safe side, pay a visit to Maria Contrados.

 

As far as I knew she didn’t have a phone, so I just drove over a couple of days later and found her at home. I fibbed and told her I needed to check her plumbing because there was some moisture accumulation in the apartment below and she invited me in.

She was wearing a flower-patterned smock and the aforementioned rubber boots. Whether she shaved her legs or not was indeterminable due to the boots and the length of her dress, and and I wondered how Hector seemed to know that. She had on a painter’s cap from Home Depot. Her hair was long and black, tied in a ponytail. She was a little on the thin side and wore no makeup whatsoever.

From the appearance of the apartment I could tell that any fears I might of had were unwarranted. As a landlord you can sense signs of trouble at a glance. The place was neat and clean. No devices of sorcery, just instruments of honest endeavor: a sewing machine, an ironing board, a small treadle loom which she had been working on when I arrived and which she returned to as I crawled under her kitchen sink. Her bathroom was also spic and span. Though I was surprised by the lack of what one expects even women with meagre incomes to accumulate — all those shampoos and rinses, creams and oils, colognes, perfumes and what not. My wife has got more of that stuff than three beauty parlors put together, not to mention all the pharmaceuticals. Maria had just one bar of soap, a comb, and a toothbrush in there. That was it.

She offered me lemonade when my phoney plumbing inspection was completed, but took nothing herself. I sat down on the table between her loom and her bed and watched her work. I asked her if she was pleased with the apartment. And she said everything was just fine, Mr. Bletcher. And I said, you can call me Richard.

Though on this visit I hadn’t intended to bring up the accusations of witchcraft, but just get a rough idea of what sort of person I was housing, we did get into discussing her background, both of us having Mexican ancestry in common. Surprisingly, she let on about her illegal status straight off the bat, putting herself at my mercy, so to speak.

I crossed the border near Nogales with my brother, Hernan, but only I made it. Hernan was shot at and I believe he is dead, as I haven’t heard from him since the night we crossed over.

The Border Patrol shot at you?

No, the polleros. They wanted to do things to me. They were wicked men and my brother tried to protect me from them. There was a fight and Hernan told me to start running. It was a dark night and I stumbled over bushes and rocks as I ran, and then I heard gunshots. I hid and waited before trying to find my way back to them. But I couldn’t see where I was going. At first I did not dare to make a sound, but when I finally shouted out Hernan’s name there was no answer. I wandered in the desert for three days. I had no food or water. I would have died had not Toribio Romo saved me.

Toribio Romo?

Yes, he gave me water and guided me to Tucson to find help.

Maria, If you are talking about the legendary Toribio Romo González, he has been dead for almost a hundred years.

As you like, Richard. But he found me there in the wilderness and he saved me.

She looked up at me steadily with her feral black eyes, a gaze which wasn’t always easy to meet, and I focused on her long fingers threading cloth with a silver shuttle through the strands of her loom.

You have no other family?

The rest of my family died in Jalisco in the earthquake of ‘96. I’m sorry for all of them, for I believe, though God has never told me this, that their main purpose in life was to get me where I am now. In order to carry out my task.

And what task would that be?

I am here to give birth to the Messiah, she replied with a warm smile and added, in case she hadn’t made herself clear enough — Jesus Christ, our Savior.

There it was. Pop goes the weasel. The one thing I was hoping not to hear.

What do you say to someone who has just told you she is personally connected to God, or worse, that she is going to be his mother? The only response I could come up with was to ask her if she was pregnant and if she had a husband or a boyfriend, the suggestion of which she laughed at, though not haughtily, as one might have expected from a lunatic, and pointed her left index finger towards the ceiling.

No, Richard. I am not pregnant yet. The Holy Ghost will take care of that in due time.

You would have probably given her her notice straight off, right? That’s it. Out she goes. But then again you weren’t there. You couldn’t have sensed the sincerity in those eyes, the soft, yet assured, quality of her voice. You couldn’t have been touched, as I was, by the strength of her delusion. Maybe she was completely insane, but it was a compelling insanity.

 

I let the subject of her holy mission ride. I warned her instead that she should be more discreet about her lack of papers. If immigration found out about her she would be deported immediately. I did not mention the phone call from the Sacred Heart people, but I did tell her that even amongst her fellow expatriates there no doubt existed those who would turn her in.

That’s not going to happen. That’s not my destiny. I’ve done this before you know.

You’ve done what before?

I’ve lived before. Given birth to a son before. And now, as then, greater powers than the police and immigration officers and man-made laws rule over my destiny.

You’re telling me you are the same Maria, the Maria that lived in Palestine over 2000 years ago?

Yes, the same. And I’ve known it since I could walk. I recall my life then as vividly as my life now. The joy of bringing my son into the world then lives in my heart as does the sorrow of losing him. Do you have children, Mr Bletcher?

No. We had a daughter. She was killed in a traffic accident.

Then we have something in common.

I probably should have recommended that she see a psychiatrist, which, of course, she could hardly have afforded. Or, hypocritically, coming from me, suggest she talk to a priest. A priest would have scolded her severely for her profanation and prescribed who knows what quantities of “Hail Marys” (The irony of which, I’m sure would have amused her, as she by no means lacked humor).

Instead I complimented her on the throw rug she was weaving.

I sell them. I could make one for you if you like.

I said that would be nice. We sat for awhile in silence and then I thanked her for the lemonade, told her once again to be careful and left.

But I was shortly to return.

Part two

Yeah, she was pretty far out. There is no denying that. But on any day when I didn’t have some important task to carry out, didn’t feel like watching a ballgame on television, didn’t really need to fix some jammed window or empty roach traps; chores which could always be put off until later, I would find myself drawn to Maria Contrados’s apartment where she, without a pause in her weaving or sewing, willingly shared her afternoons.

     In the course of our conversations, which were in Spanish, her English being extremely rudimentary, I discovered that she did indeed have special qualities. For starters, and we are talking about a person with no formal education, living without books, television, telephone, or, need I add — Internet, she had extraordinary knowledge of the Roman Palestine of two thousand years ago. She gave vivid and convincing narratives of what she claimed to be her life there and she could describe a long list of public figures, places and events in startling detail.

     These revelations, however amazing, did not, of course, qualify her as the Virgin Mary, a pretension which I attributed to her having all too vivid dreams, contact with the man upstairs was, as she made clear, mediated solely via the angel Gabriel, and only in her sleep. But though you can dream up and convince yourself that you are in direct contact with the Archangel, you can’t dream (correctly that is, as she did) that there were 14 villages in the prefect of Galilee with a population of roughly 14,000, explain how clothes were made, food cooked, circumcision performed, teeth pulled, houses built, gardens sowed, or quote the price of wheat and honey in both shekels and quadrans.

     This unexplainable knowledge, or clairvoyance, or whatever you might call it, was not only intriguing, it challenged my sanity, and when returning home after a visit with her I would scour the Internet for information that might refute her stories. But everything I read collaborated or, at least, gelled with Maria’s account of things. How was this possible? It was not just that her answers fit in with the facts, even when there were no facts to be had, her renderings were highly credible.

     As for what she told me about raising her son; his childhood shenanigans, teenage adventures, his relation to the opposite sex and so forth — well, most of Jesus’ first 30 years are not documented and her stories were thus unverifiable, but it all certainly made for fascinating entertainment. Had she not had loftier ambitions, I would have offered to write down these fables and submit them to publishers of historical fiction.

     Not that her narratives always followed the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, or other mainstream Christian faiths. When, for example, I asked the reason for her and Joseph being in Bethlehem on the 24th of December, she laughed, citing one of the few jokes in the New Testament: ‘Because nothing good ever came out of Nazareth’.

     But I wasn’t in Bethlehem, Richard. Jesus was born at our home in Nazareth. You have got to remember that the scribes were always adjusting details so that the prophecies could be fulfilled. Joseph was in Jerusalem as he had to be on account of the census, this they get right, but you don’t really expect a woman in the last stages of her pregnancy to make a five day trip on a bumpy donkey? The same goes for that hiding out in Egypt until Herod was dead. That is all made up to fulfill prophecies. We were never in Egypt.

     On one occasion I asked her how many children she’d had altogether, a loaded question obviously, for if Jesus had had siblings not conceived from the seed of God, Maria would have a hard time maintaining that she was still a virgin, which she steadfastly did. She looked at me sternly.

     Altogether? Altogether, I had one!

     Since I had browsed religious material on the net nights on end, I could cite for her the many references to Simon, James and the others who were called the brothers and sisters of Jesus. To this she replied:

     Richard, you’re such a silly old skeptic. Some were the children of my husband through his previous marriage, others were cousins.

     I spent many entertaining, though, as autumn turned into winter, increasingly chilly afternoons in the company of this exceptional female (she frugally – or ascetically, I know not which – refused to use her heater), and gradually, as you must have gathered by now, fell under her spell. You could say I had become “infatuated” with her, though that word would mislead anyone trying to understand the true nature of our relationship. Yes, I had become precariously intimate with Maria Contrados, but she was so inviolate, her integrity so definite, that my feelings, which with another woman of her caliber might have taken an amorous turn, in this case could not.

     Yet even if my ship of love sailed on platonic seas, the massive improbability of Maria being what she claimed to be was enough to keep me from mentioning these visits to my wife, a steady churchgoer and practically-minded woman not taken with otherworldly phenomenon.

     My extended absences spoke for themselves though, and Eleanor, who was nobody’s fool, began to suspect something (she piquantly termed it hanky-panky) was going on. As you can imagine, there was no way I could set her straight by explaining the true details of my relationship with Maria. But as for hanky-panky with the Virgin Mary, I assure you there was none.

     I should perhaps explain that Eleanor’s and my marriage was no longer a happy one. Our daughter, Vanessa, was only six when she was taken from us by a hit and run driver in Rancho Mirage. She was on an outing with her first-grade class. There was both a teacher and a traffic warden escorting them across the street. No blame is to fall on those people, because the driver was a madman, speeding at over eighty miles an hour, coming out of nowhere. Vanessa had dropped a book and stooping to pick it up lagged just slightly behind the other kids. Just a few feet, you see. In the papers they wrote that it was a miracle that none of the other children had been hurt. Perhaps, but this miracle was of little consolation to us.

     Relationships stronger than Eleanor’s and mine might have survived a tragedy of that magnitude. Maybe there are parents who through their love for each other could get over such a loss — the greatest possible loss imaginable. But we were not that strong. Memories that might have given us joy for the six wonderful years we shared with our little angel only served as reminders of what was forever gone. And our grief did not unite us. We held our sorrow locked in each our own hearts and it estranged us from one another. We became strangers sharing the same roof, familiar yet distant. I suppose some couples would have started over again and produced new children, like going out and getting another pet when the old one dies. Neither of us were inclined in this direction. For us Vanessa was irreplaceable.

     It’s odd that jealousy can brew in a relationship where  passion no longer plays a part. Perhaps it was my silence that bothered Eleanor the most. Not knowing what I was up to. Hector, on the other hand, knew quite well where I was spending time, and he liked to kid me about it:

     Hey, boss. You’re doing a lot of repair work over there at the Virgin Mary’s place. She’s not a bad looking woman, huh? Maybe you’re thinking about becoming a disciple or something?

     I happened to know that Hector also made visits to Maria Contrados and that his “disciple” comment wasn’t without relevance. He was part of a group of locals who met with her on a regular basis. It was these get togethers that Mrs Alvarez from the Defenders of the Sacred Heart had referred to as seances. At times I had seen an unusual amount of cars parked outside her building and I would drive off. When I later asked her what was going on. She explained that people who believed in her mission, or who were at least interested enough to find out more, met in her apartment twice a week for what she called “study sessions”. She added that my biblical knowledge would be of value should I choose to join them. She never used the word disciples, but It’s possible that some of her study session participants saw a career for themselves in that capacity.

     She’s making me a rug, Hector.

     Yeah, boss. She makes nice rugs.

     Eleanor didn’t think so.

     Where in the hell did that come from? She asked when I came home with the rainbow-colored Saltillo Sarape throw rug Maria had proudly presented me with a half an hour earlier.

     Don’t you dare put that up somewhere in here.

     What else should I do with it, Eleanor?

     You can give it to your girlfriend.

     I don’t have a girlfriend.

     Really? Is that so? Well then donate it to the Salvation Army.

     By January, when I finally gave in to Maria’s prodding and agreed to sit  in on a study group session, I still hadn’t informed her of my wife’s misgivings, nor had I let on about the Defenders of the Sacred Heart. Mrs. Alvarez had called me several times by then, and in our latest conversation I had lied to her with some cock and bull story about checking Maria’s status with the immigration people, and learning that she fully met the requirements of the latest amnesty program. Tell your defenders that her green card is in the mail.

     Since I definitely had not bought Maria’s story, how can I explain my increasing involvement with her?

     For starters, the enjoyment that came from being in her company was more than sufficient to make up for the time and effort it cost me. She was fascinating. She was bright. And — I must admit Hector had a point — she was attractive  in her strange, unfashionable way. Her clothes, demeanor in public, the silly visor cap, were all designed to hide her beauty.

     But there was more to it than that. By now I was thoroughly convinced that she honestly believed in herself. Her ‘mission’ was not a ruse, and even if I made no pretence of having been won over to her cause, she did not turn me away. She was confident that I would one day see the light. And though you might put me right up there in looneyville with Maria for saying this, I did not completely rule out . . . this is embarrassing . . . I did not . . . well let me put it this way  . . .

     People took chances on Microsoft and Apple in the beginning and what did they know? And look, now those people are all millionaires. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly didn’t expect a material reward for being part of her project. Jesus never made anybody rich — as long as he was still on earth, that is. But it did enter my head that, in the rare event, that one shot in a trillion, that she was legit, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to be in on it. On the contrary, it would be the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. What did I have to lose?

     And remember, Maria wasn’t claiming to be Our Savior. She wasn’t trying to promote herself as anything more than a mother. OK, the mother of God, but how smart a bluff does that make for? Once her child was born (if ever) well then the proof would be in the pudding: even if there was no way of verifying that the inception was pure holy intervention, it certainly would become apparent sooner or later whether this child was something special or not — and if the latter proved to be the case then the bluff would be exposed. So, yes, I began to frequent meetings, though not without causing suspicion from others in the group, me being a landlord and half-gringo to boot.

     There were usually seven or eight Indio residents in attendance and Hector, as I had suspected, was one of them. All of us were Spanish speaking. We crammed as best we could onto her bed and two chairs, latecomers having to sit on the floor.

     A Panamanian named Mateo appeared to be some sort of leader at these meeting. He did much of the talking while Maria sat silently at her loom. He addressed us as “The Guardians”. It was our task to assist Maria in Jesus’ upbringing and protect him from the satanic forces that were sure to oppose him once word of his existence got out.

     Some of the group, were completely on board. Among them Anita, a maid at the Marriott in Indian Wells, and Luciano who was unemployed and had time to distribute leaflets and run errands for Mateo and Maria. Others were still on the fence; curious enough to attend sessions, hesitant enough not to give up any real money when the hat was passed to pay for the Holy Mother’s orthodontic treatment (which apparently Mateo had convinced Maria were necessary as there wasn’t a painting, illustrated bible, or stained glass window in the world showing the Virgin Mary with crooked teeth).

     Maria was the final arbitrator whenever discussions ended in a stalemate, as often was the case, for the Guardians were poorly versed in religious doctrine and tended to harbor hodgepodge notions, such as thinking that the Immaculate Conception was about Jesus, when, as we know, it was really Mary who was immaculately conceived, and once that was cleared up, someone asked if Mary’s mother was also a virgin! You get the picture — that is the level these people were on.

     One lively topic was the question of how Maria had been impregnated the first time around. Had the Holy Ghost somehow fertilized her egg?  In which case, wouldn’t that make Jesus a demigod. Or did the Holy Ghost plant an egg into Maria that was already fertilized. Wouldn’t that make her a  surrogate mother like those women in India? And so on and on they went.

     One afternoon spent alone with Maria, a setting I much preferred to those confuddled gatherings of the Guardians, we received a “courtesy call” from a priest from St Josephs accompanied by two staunch Latino women. I was ready to turn them away at the door, but Maria, hearing their voices, called to me to invite them in. The priest, once ascertaining that Maria wasn’t a protestant, asked where she worshiped. She nodded towards the room behind her.

     But here you cannot confess your sins and take communion.  Would you not consider coming to our church, and perhaps joining in on some of our social activities and outreach programs together with these ladies?

     With a ceremonial sweep of his arms he indicated his female companions, whose disgruntled faces I coupled with his reluctance to assert his sacerdotal prerogative there and then and challenge Maria’s heretical claims, for I assumed I was meeting members of The Defenders of The Sacred Heart for the first time face to face.

     This encounter was a hot topic at the next meeting of the Guardians. Luciano was the first to speak up:

     Those were D.O.S.H. women for sure. They were checking Maria out. Why pick on us Catholics? With all the crazy religions in this place? Isn’t it time we showed these people we mean business?

     Maria sighed and shook her head.  I wondered what sort of business he was implying. Hector asked the next question:

     Mateo says you did some things, Maria — you showed him some signs; can’t you do some more of that? These people couldn’t deny a miracle.

     After casting an admonishing glance at Mateo, Maria answered:

     I don’t do miracles, Hector. I am only a servant — an instrument of Our Lord’s will.

     But God tells you things that will happen. If you were to share some of that with us, we would be strengthened in our dealings with these people.

     Well Hector, would you like me to predict that a comet will demolish Bed, Bath and Beyond, or would you be satisfied if I told you that a bird will fly across that window right now?

     At which point a bird did fly across her window on it’s way to the golf course. There was silence in the room. Several of the Guardians crossed themselves, but a fat and slow moving Mexican named Bruno, dared to say out loud what at least I had been thinking:

     Birds fly out there all the time, Maria.

     Bruno, I ask you to show faith, but you are only grasping for certainty. Faith is a living thing, a beating heart, a flame swirling towards the heavens. Certainty is death, darkness, cold, still nothingness. Life, love, and above all, faith, hold no certainty. Should the extent of your faith be equal to the extent of your certainty? Would that be the kind of Guardians we are looking for? Sure-thingers, safe-betters?

     She looked up at all of us.

     God is in each of you. God is within your soul. Isn’t it wonderful that we know that? Dogs don’t know that. Computers and cars don’t know that. Life comes from God, and God tells you what is right and what is wrong  Now ask yourselves — why are you here in this apartment, with me at this moment, in all the universe, in all of time? Why have you and I met, of all the billions of people who never meet; here, now — why?

     This question stumped us all, but Bruno, who had up until then shown a servility towards Maria bordering on the obsequious, answered with surprising defiance:

     Coincidence!

     Is that so Bruno? But what then is coincidence? Isn’t it events happening simultaneously? Which is exactly how the hand of God works. God doesn’t play dice. The coincidence of us together here is preordained.

     Bruno held his ground:

     But if I get up now and walk out that door? That wouldn’t be a coincidence. Would it still be preordained?

     Now it was Mateo who spoke up, pointing a finger at Bruno:

     Yes, it is preordained, as it is preordained that you are a son of Judas. For we know that you are a member of the D.O.S.H. You are a spy!

     Which evidently was true, for Bruno with a nasty grin on his face, slowly got up off the couch and walked towards the door, calling back to us as he left:

     Crazy fools. She’s a witch. You’ll all rot in hell!

Conclusion

  Though I was, of course, alarmed that the D.O.S.H. should find Maria so threatening as to plant an informer in our midst, even more worrying to me was learning that Mateo had a privileged relationship with Maria that included sharing knowledge not known by the rest of the Guardians. The respect and awe I held for Maria certainly didn’t extend to this man, who I found dogmatic and a bit of a bully. It troubled me that she let him play such an important part in her mission.

     Mateo had somewhat of a reputation of his own in the Coachella Valley, though it had none of the religious connotations of Maria’s. He was purported to have left three kids and a wife behind him in Panama City, along with a shady past. He worked as a server at Le Petite Gervais in Palm Desert, a plush bistro that was said (erroneously, since Mateo worked there) to employ only professionally schooled French waiters from Paris. More rumors had it that he had sown his seed at least twice in California: first in Escondido, and then Hemmet, without taking responsibility for mother or child. It was also hinted that he sold illegal substances to high schoolers, as he lived far beyond his means. I discounted this last bit of gossip, since I happen to know that Frenchwaiters, during the season, at least, can accumulate considerable amounts of cash.

     In truth, I knew little about Mateo — we spoke to each other rarely, but his swaggish nature, his haughty bearing, and his dull gaze were all qualities that matched up poorly with the virtues of our Maria and it pained me to think that he might be duping her in one way or another. Though I felt a responsibility to advise her as to the individuals she surrounded herself with, she would hear none of it. For example, once, when I had mentioned smelling alcohol on Anita’s breath at 11 o’clock in the morning, she had cut me off sharply, saying: They’re Guardians, Richard, not Guardian Angels. Adding in the metaphorical language she often used, “Open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and camels.”

     During the following weeks my aversion to Mateo grew, and in March, when Maria, glowing with the warmth and brilliance of a thousand candles, surprised us with the news that the Holy Spirit had visited her and that Jesus was in her body, warming up for the world, preparing for the Second Coming; whatever happiness or wonder I should have felt was punctured by menacing visions of Mateo’s odious, pockmarked face — and my consternation must have showed, for Maria asked me why I wasn’t happy for her.

     Of course I am, I said, managing a smile, and went on to suggest that she should perhaps be seeing an obstetrician. Interpreting the puzzling glance she gave me as her not being familiar with the word, I clarified: You know, a baby doctor. You’ve got an important payload in there. You wouldn’t want something to go wrong. I should have guessed her answer:

     Richard, can the will of God be deterred by complications? Does God need a doctor? You see yourself how ridiculous that sounds. Anita has delivered many babies, she will be here when it’s time. Anita has a pure heart.

     After Maria’s Annunciation, meetings of the Guardians were more disconcerted than ever, and though we occupied ourselves with talk of Jesus’ schooling, and physical training, suitable diets (vegetarianism was suggested, but rejected on biblical precedent), and so forth, much time was spent just contemplating Maria’s bulging “Throne of Creation” which we would eye like a safe known to contain riches, or an unaccompanied suitcase at an airport.

     Outside our group, word of her pregnancy spread (A joke was making the rounds of Indio that her condition was contagious and that we would soon have an epidemic of unwed virgin mothers) and Guardians took turns outside her apartment to ward off the curious, which included a snooping reporter from KESQ-am, and of course the D.O.S.H., who had not lightened up in their campaign against her. As the hot months of summer and then autumn came around I convinced Maria, for the sake of Jesus, if not herself, to use her air cooler and I subsidized her utility bill. Eleanor’s jealousy, on the other hand, simmered on.

     You are spending an awful lot of time with those Mexicans, getting back to your roots, I suppose,  she told me one day as I was leaving for Maria’s, though I hadn’t told her where I was going.

     There not all Mexicans. As if that would matter.

     Well that woman is. That Maria. My hairdresser told me that she is pregnant with a baby that could be Jesus. I couldn’t believe my ears. She was serious. These people . . .

     You never know.

     You never know what?

     Miracles. You never know when it comes to miracles.

     Richard, I think it’s time we had a little talk. Don’t you?

     At one a.m. on a cold December morning (there was actually, according to the weatherman a good chance of a rare snowfall) my phone rang and a trembling voice, it was Hector, told me: The dam has broken!, which was our prearranged code for Maria’s water breaking or other signs of labor.

     But Richard, something must be wrong, it’s only the 19th.

     The Guardians had naturally assumed that the Nativity would occur on the 25th. I assured Hector that it made no difference, and that I would be right over. As I fumbled with my clothes in the dark, Eleanor, who had been woken by the call, asked me where in the heck I thought I was going?

     Broken water pipe, Eleanor. How is that for lousy timing.

     From the lights of Maria’s apartment I could make out the occupants of a van parked outside. Three women and a man sat drinking coffee from a thermos. I recognized Bruno in the driver’s seat and I pounded on their hood: What are you doing here? Get off my property!

One of the women answered:

     You don’t own the street, Mr Bletcher. We’re witnesses to this farce. We are witnesses that there will be no miracles here, no shooting stars, no angels flying in, you see.

     Up in the apartment blankets draped from the ceiling encircled Maria’s bed (always a landlord, I pictured nail holes in the plaster). Anita, wearing a crisp white “bon vivant” cooking apron from Trader Joes, was the first to greet me and answer the question on my face: Everything is fine, Richard. And Maria, hearing my name, called out gaily from behind her little enclosure: Ah, its the kind landlord who has given a poor mother-to-be a room at his inn. Three Guardians sat on the chairs erect as schoolboys outside their principal’s office. One of them offered me his place, but I took a seat on the floor. Hector asked if I had seen the van outside: It’s that Judas and the Defenders. How could they know? There’s still a traitor amongst us, I tell you. Someone made coffee.

     We sat together in silent embarrassment following Anita’s steps to and from Maria’s enclosure, listening to what was taking place only a few feet away, yet hidden from our view. Maria teased us between labor pains: Whoever is best at changing Jesus’ diapers will be made a saint, she called to us from her bed, laughing. But on the whole there was little talk. Mateo couldn’t be located. Two more Guardians showed up, sheepishly dampening their bubbling spirits, having come directly from a party. What if the original shepherds had been drunk?, scolded Hector.

     Hours passed. I lied my way through several irritated phone calls from Eleanor before turning off my cellphone. By four o’clock, when all that could be heard in the room were snores from dozing Guardians, and I had begun to think nothing was ever going to happen — it did. First a change of tone in Maria’s sighs, followed by gentle admonishments from Anita, the straining of Maria’s body upon the bed, more encouragement from Anita, then moans and gasps from Maria — anguished, ecstatic sounds of struggle that rose in waves of intensity and filled me with apprehension (and, to my shame, a disconcerting fervor). Push, coaxed Anita. That’s it. Push. He’s coming. He’s on his way. Once more Maria . . . and then finally the cry of a new voice in the room serving as the starter’s pistol in a footrace, as we rushed to our feet and tumbled towards Maria’s bed, tearing down the interceding blankets in our excitement.

     I had not attended my daughters delivery. I had never been closer to childbirth than TV hospital shows and I had little idea what to expect at that moment, but I was surprised by the amount of blood. Blood on Anita’s new apron, on the towel she had wrapped the baby in — but above all, on Maria herself, as she reached out to Anita for her child, but weakly, and I read panic in Anita’s eyes as she shouted at us to back off, and then shortly afterward:

     Call 911! Now!

     Is something wrong with Jesus?, asked Hector. No you idiot, shouted Anita, it’s Maria, she’s gushing blood like a fountain and I can’t stop it. Someone take the baby!

     I stepped forward and lifted Jesus out of Anita’s arms and watched helplessly as she pressed a pillow between Maria’s legs, wailing the whole time. Anita made such a racket that I didn’t hear the ambulance arrive and was surprised by paramedics rushing into the room looking at us like we were criminals. Are you a nurse? they asked Anita. No, she answered. Then step back, Miss! Everybody else who doesn’t belong in here leave the room! Then turning to me: Are you the father? I nodded meekly, too timid to tell them the whole story. Do you have insurance, sir? This they asked several times.

     Between the animated bodies of the two paramedics tending Maria, the paraphernalia of their trade clattering and jangling from the hooks and straps of their avocado green overalls, I caught Maria’s eyes, open wide, without fear, a faint smile on her lips for her baby; perhaps for me as well. A third paramedic, without pausing in her conversation with her dispatcher, a cellphone jammed between chin and shoulder, unceremoniously pulled Jesus out of my arms (so much for my duties as a Guardian). We’re taking them to Kennedy — you can follow us in your car. As they carried Maria out on a stretcher, I was just able to grasp her hand, a one-second touch of those long, delicate, now bloodied fingers, before they had her and our Jesus out the front door, crossing the path of two policeman who rushed into the room shining flashlights at everyone (most absurdly – as the room was fully lit), asking questions and checking IDs. The D.O.S.H. people, who had invited themselves up to the landing, shouted after Hector and me as we ran down to my car:

     This is the punishment of God for her sacrilege!

     By the time we got to the admissions desk at JFK Memorial, I had my story worked out: She is my fiancé. Yes, I am the father. Yes, here is my insurance card. Can we see them now? The nurse, who obviously felt that even emergencies must proceed at a postal clerk’s pace, said, after shuffling about the papers on her desk for a minute or two: Your baby is in Obstetrics – your fiancé is in ER. She handed me forms to fill out. I am sure you will be able to see both of them soon.

     In the hospital waiting room amongst an assembly of cheerless faces, tired eyes, swollen eyes, one manifestly unmistakable black eye; sprained, perhaps broken bones, and a sordid assortment of sneezes, sniffles and coughs, Hector and I found seats on red plastic chairs, which to many of the waiting room’s occupants must have seemed familiar, for they were, in fact, identical to those of the local Greyhound bus station. Hector’s attention tuned in on a Spanish speaking television, the color scale of which was rendered purple and white by the phosphorescence of the ceiling lights, while I got busy concocting half-truths on the admittance papers. I hadn’t completed half, when the nurse found us and sprightly announced:

     You may see your little girl now.

     Smiling patiently, I politely corrected her: You have the wrong father – my baby is a boy.

     Mr. Bletcher, I assure you, you are the father of a beautiful baby girl.

     In the chair next to me, Hector went white in shock. I don’t know what color I went, but I distinctly remember visions of the waiting room ceiling cracking and bricks and gravel falling upon my head.

     And my fiancé?

     The nurse didn’t know. Looking over her shoulder with alarm at Hector, who was knocking his head with clenched fists, she led me down a corridor to wait outside the glass-window of a room full of little cribs, while she went in and picked up Jesus from her cradle and brought her to me.

      Do you know what you will name her, Mr Bletcher?

     Jesus!

     As I stood holding this remarkably tiny, breathing, thing, an Indian, or perhaps Pakistani, doctor approached us with her “bad news” face on and came straight to the point:

    Mr Bletcher, I am terribly sorry. We could not save your wife. She died ten minutes ago — a massive uterine hemorrhage. Do you understand? She bled to death.

    The doctor waited to see the effect of this on me before continuing:

    And though I sympathize deeply with you, I must say you have acted with inexcusable negligence. Your wife had fibroid growth that could have been detected in a simple pelvic examination. And to attempt a birth in your home without the assistance of a qualified nurse or midwife, well that was sordidly, imbecilically stupid.

    As if this appraisal of my irresponsibility also served as a pronouncement on my worth as a parent, the nurse lifted Jesus out of my arms, filling in the doctor as to the correct nature of Maria’s and my marital status (as fabricated by me an hour earlier). Declining the offer of a sedative and a chat with the hospital chaplain in the “bereavement room”, and loaded with a new set of forms to fill in, I returned to Hector, only Hector wasn’t there anymore. Abandoning the paperwork, I walked out to my car, just managing to get into the driver’s seat before tears and devastation overcame me, I cried unrestrained and relentlessly for the first time in 15 years.

     I am going to have to stop writing now. Emanuela is crying in her crib. Hungry? Wet diapers? Too tired to sleep? Who knows? I’ve got a lot to learn. Anyway, since you might want to hear what happened between then and now, this is the short of it: None of us were prosecuted, though Anita, who could have been charged with practicing medicine without a license, only got off on account of her deportation (all in all, four of the Guardians were deported). We never saw Mateo again – he had vanished into thin air. Nowadays Eleanor and I only meet in the offices of our lawyers as we bicker about the division of our property, which I can’t afford to be too nice about, since I want to make sure Emanuela gets the best start in life I can give her.

     You are perhaps wondering if Emanuela is a special child? Well yes, but don’t all fathers think that of their daughters? Anyhow, I’m not raising her to be the Messiah; and that’s not because Maria died giving Emanuela life, for I can accept that God works in strange, sometimes cruel ways. And it’s not because she surprised us by being a girl. The more thought I have given that matter, the more sense it makes: Jesus got his fair shot as a man, it is only right that it should be a woman’s turn now.

     No, the main reason is that God hasn’t given me any instructions. Not yet, anyway. The Archangel hasn’t visited my dreams, though, I admit, I am still prepared for that to happen. And so far, my baby daughter doesn’t do miracles, if miracles don’t include sitting up straight with nothing to hang on to, saying a very nice “Papá,” and developing a laugh, that though indescribable when you first hear it, afterward makes you think of the tingling of crystalline chimes – only softer.

 

 

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