Safe in the Arms of Jesus
Sitting in the passenger seat of Chris’s Ford truck, I watch his softball game from the comfort of the parking lot. If I was sitting on the metal bleachers this long, my cheeks would be permanently numb from the desert heat. Melting in here is only slightly less painful. I am such a dedicated girlfriend. I should have gone home instead, but Chris insisted on picking me up when I returned from my trip. Every year First Baptist Church sends a group of high school students to help build houses in Sonora, Mexico during spring break.
Through half-open eyes, I see Chris’s team take the field for the bottom of the ninth, their cleats kicking up red dust. Or is that me in need of a shower? The low electronic buzz of the announcer is incomprehensible from this distance, but I see the boy on the scoreboard change the number of total runs for Chris’s team. Now they are tied. Either this is going into extra innings or Chris is going to come back to the truck in a bad mood. Either way, I would rather be somewhere cooler, somewhere cleaner.
A voice in my ear interrupts my dozing off. “Hey, Lisett. Terrible about Jacob, isn’t it?”
I look up to see Sheila, standing next to me in shiny blue biker shorts and an over-sized Chargers jersey, her bleach-streaked hair wild about her head. Her Aqua Net aura chokes me, so I know she just finished making herself cute.
“Huh? Oh, hi Sheila.” My dad was her dad’s boss for most of our elementary school years, so we were forced to play together. She is also a Baptist, but not my favorite person in the world. Too gossipy and too flirtatious. “Sorry, I was falling asleep. I just got back from the Sonora trip.” I yawn, exaggerating my stretch and shifting my body away from her a little so I can lean over to rest my chin on the window frame. “Why didn’t you go?” I ask Sheila.
She ignores my question. “I just can’t stop crying.”
When I don’t respond, she misunderstands that as an invitation to continue confiding in me. I take a sip of the now warm water from my bottle.
“Because of Jacob, you know.” She pats her lower abdomen, getting all squinchy-faced. “He might be the father.” She leans forward and I move out of the window so she has a place to rest her forehead while she sobs.
The shape of her hair remains the same, not a strand falls forward with her face. I can see dark roots on the lightest chunks of hair. I know she’s lying about something. “I’m sorry?” I’m not sure if to congratulate her on her pregnancy or offer condolences for her condition. “Jacob who? My best friend, Jacob Davis?” If Jacob was with her, I would have known. I’ll give him shit on Monday in sixth period. “Uh Sheila, I still don’t understand why you are crying.”
She looks up, sniffs, then sneers, “You don’t know?”
“What?” The cheer of the opponent’s fans at the game’s end obliterates whatever explanation she offers.
I picture Jacob the last time I saw him when school got out last Friday. He was dancing across the Pizza Hut parking lot. Just us two.
“Lisett? Did you hear me?” Sheila is choking on her sobs now. “They say Francisco is going to jail for a long time because he was driving.”
As Chris approaches, Shelia turns her attention to him, hoping for more sympathy than I am providing. “Hey, Chris. Good game.” She sniffs. “You know, right? About Jacob?” She chokes on his name.
I don’t give Chris a chance to answer. “Sheila,” I articulate with dry mouth and fat tongue, “maybe you should go.”
She tries to protest, but I turn to Chris and just listen to her steps crunch across the gravel.
A car pulls out, spewing dust between Chris and I. He walks back to sit on the tailgate, slowly removing his cleats one lace at a time. I turn around in my seat and talk through the open back window. “Chris. Why didn’t you tell me about Jacob?” But I knew the answer. Jealousy. Ever since Chris found out that I had kissed Jacob in ninth grade, he has felt threatened. “Is that why you insisted on picking me up from the bus? Why I couldn’t go home to shower or see my folks before your stupid game?” I smack my palm against the glass to get his attention. He looks over his shoulder but continues with the damn shoes. “Is that the real reason you suggested I watch from the truck?” With each question my voice gets louder and deeper. People stop loading ice chests and bat bags into their vehicles to stare at us.
Chris, usually calm and quiet, throws his own equipment into the back of the truck, jumps inside the cab with me, and slams his door.
“Chris, answer me!” I scream.
“I wanted to tell you myself,” he growls,
“but after the game. God, I hate Sheila.”
“Why after the game? Why wait?”
“I knew you’d be upset.”
“And you didn’t want anything to stop you from playing?” I am appalled at my own realization. “Selfish bastard!”
He puts the truck in reverse.
“Are you kidding me?” Before he can guide his oversized monster out of the space, I grab my duffle of dirty clothes and my back pack and jump out.
“Lisett,” he whines. “C’mon. I gotta take you home.”
“I’ll take myself home.” And I leave his truck door open so he can’t follow me immediately. I cross the street and walk so fast a slight breeze dries my angry tears.
About six blocks down and three blocks over, my best friend Angelica’s parents own a small panaderia. They are Catholic so she wasn’t on the trip. Even if she isn’t working in the store today, I can escape from Chris for a while and I’m halfway home. By the time I fall in the front door, I am sobbing more than Sheila had been.
“Que paso mi’jita?” I cannot tell Angelica’s mom why I’m crying because my vocal chords are not cooperating. First, she inspects me for injury. Satisfied I have not been mauled by wild animals or hit by a car, she gets me a bottle of water. I collapse in a folding chair next to the tortilla press and lean against it to cool my forehead and cheek. She calls my mom before helping her next customer.
I hear the ding of the store entrance six times and the murmur of familiar voices that I try to ignore before my mother rushes across the linoleum.
“Mi’ja, are you okay?” She squats next to my shaking frame and strokes my hair. I am five again with a scraped knee and my mouth waits for a grape popsicle.
When the sweet concoction does not arrive, I sniff and look up. “Jacob,” I whisper, feeling my rage rebuild under that one word.
“Oh, mi’ja, Chris told you?” She looks around. “Where is he?”
I sniff more and take a sip of my water. I clear my throat, trying to make the words appear. I try to tell my mom about selfish-ass Chris and stupid-ass Shelia, but I get all choked up again and can only squeak out, “Why?” through my tears.
My mom hugs me, shushing me so I do not scare away customers. “Pray, mi’ja. Pray for his family and pray for his soul.”
That is her answer to everything. Test coming up? Pray. Not enough money for bills? Pray. Friends stabbing you in the back? Pray. Boy you liked dies? Pray. But I am a realist. No heavenly father or holy blessed mother can bring Jacob back.
I try to smile at her so she thinks I’m okay. But I’m not. I am angry at Chris, Sheila, Francisco, and Jacob. I stand up, put my arms around my mom, and walk back towards the entrance.
We are startled by the short, dark flurry of tangled hair that enters, panting. “Lisett! I was calling your house for the past two hours. I thought your bus must be late. Then, my cousin, Chuy, said you came running in the store looking all crazy.” Angelica, my other best friend, tries to catch her breath between sentences. She looks at my face directly. “You know about Jacob? About the accident?”
I feel the tears start climbing back up my throat. “Were you there?”
Her eyes widen as her mother approaches our conversation. “No. I spent the night at Isabel’s.”
That is code for my mom doesn’t know I went. She and her cousin Isabel must have snuck out because Isabel’s mom doesn’t hear too well in the left ear and after she falls asleep, they roll her over onto her right side. Then they just walk down the street where Isabel has arranged for her boyfriend, Jack, to pick them up.
With one arm anchored around my mom’s waist, I half hug Angelica with the other arm. “I’ll call you later.” I’m still sad but a little less angry; I just want a shower and my own bed.
I stay in my room a long time, looking at the stuffed Ninja Turtle that Jacob won for me at the fair in ninth grade. How can I pray if I don’t know what to say?
My thoughts are interrupted by a light knock. “Are you sure you don’t want to eat dinner?” My mom asks when I open the door. She has not forced me to talk about Jacob, but I did hear her explaining my afternoon to my dad when he came home from work.
“No thanks, Mom, I’m going to call Angelica and then go to bed.” I hug her then take the phone into my room, careful not to pinch the spiral cord in the door as it closes behind me. After about six rings, I start to hang up then, breathless, Angelica answers. “Why do you always sound like you are running a mile?” I ask her.
“Hey Lisett. My stupid brothers keep trying to get the phone. Nobody calls for them anyway.” She yells the last part, trying to insult her younger siblings. “You okay now?”
I smile because more than anyone, Angelica knows I’m not. But what do you say when someone dies? “Tell me everything.”
“Are you sure? Okay, hold on.” She tries to cover the mouthpiece but her tone could pierce steel. “Mom, I’m going to talk to Lisett in your room. Keep the boys out. I’ll finish my dinner later. I don’t care if it’s cold.”
“Angelica, you can always call me later.”
“No, girl, this is more important.”
“So it was at some party? Whose party? Where?”
“Slow down. Are you gonna let me tell the story?”
“Sorry. Please.” I’m usually superstitious when it comes to talking about death. For Jacob, I hope it will help me make sense of it all and find a way to pray.
“I went to Isabel’s because Jack heard some guys from LA, college guys, were having a rager by the river. He thinks we want to go for free beer, which we do, of course, but really, college guys. C’mon. I met this really cute gringo from Indiana.”
“Angelica, can you tell me that part later, when I can enjoy it?”
“Huh? Yeah, sorry. I didn’t even know Jacob was there until some other white boys started loud talking Francisco and his homies. You know how they are, they show up already wasted and try to start shit.”
“But Jacob is cool with them because of baseball.”
“Yeah, yeah. So Jacob had been talking to this chubby college girl, one of the guy’s sister I think. Oh, sorry.”
“It’s okay, he’s not my boyfriend remember?”
“Oh, yeah, Chris. Wait, where is Chris? Have you talked to him?”
“Angelica!” She can never just tell a story without distracting herself and while I love her like a sister, it infuriates me when I need information.
“Okay, so Jacob goes and tries to chill everyone out. He says, ‘My boy here will take me to town we’ll get some tequila shots for you.’ We got all this free beer and he wants to take the Mexican into town for tequila. What’s that shit about?”
I hear banging on the door from Angelica’s end of the phone.
“What dad? Okay. Sorry.”
“You gotta go?”
“No, but he can hear me cussing. I hope he didn’t hear tequila or beer.”
“You usually get louder on the bad words,” I tell her. I never used such language until I started partying with my Catholic friend. The Baptists tend to frown on such things. “That’s how we always get in trouble in first period. Maybe we should meet at Carl’s Jr.” My stomach is finally protesting.
She yells to someone in her house again. “Okay, in a minute.” Quieter to me she says, “My stupid brothers think they need the phone for homework. You know they’re lying. Homework over spring break. In junior high. Liars!” Louder but without covering the phone she says, “Why you wait until the last minute for that sh-stuff? Okay, let me finish eating and help my mom clean up and I’ll walk down to Carl’s about nine.”
I look at the clock. “Okay. See you in thirty.”
I hang up and reach over for last year’s yearbook. The grainy black and whites of my classmates stare back at me. I open to the junior section and turn past Angelica and Isabel Becerra. I hesitate, knowing Jacob Davis is on the next page, not sure I’m strong enough yet.
I close my eyes and see him kissing me at a desert party then drinking more beer from his red solo cup. I open my eyes and turn the page slowly to reveal his sideways grin. He is wearing his Padres jersey and his hair had just been lined up on the sides. This is the picture I pretended with when I thought I wanted him to be my boyfriend. He’d signed the space below his photo: To my best girl, Thanks for the best times. Love, J. I run my fingers over the words he wrote and feel the indentation of the blue ballpoint on the thick glossy page. I close my eyes again, too late to stop my tears from dripping down.
“Mom,” I cry out, waking myself from the painful memories. I sit up dropping my book open on the floor and walk out to where she and my dad are watching television. “Mom, Dad, I need some air. Is it okay if I walk to Carl’s and hang out with Angelica?”
My dad looks at my mom; she looks at me then back at him. He closes the leg-rest of his black leather recliner with a loud thwap and stands up. “This is a re-run. I just got a call about some power lines down on the west end of town. I’ll drop you off.” He is an electrician for the city, on call every other weekend.
“Thanks, Dad.” He tries to be understanding in his own gruff way. I’m sure he doesn’t know what to say anymore than I do. While my mom thinks prayer is the answer to everything, my dad thinks everyone should just tough it out. Doesn’t matter what “it” is. Stove your finger playing basketball? Tape it up and keep playing. Geometry too hard? Keep doing it until you get it right. Don’t like what mom made for dinner? Eat it anyway. Boy you liked dies? Be grateful it wasn’t you.
Outside the fast food restaurant, I thank him again. “I’ll call mom before I walk home.” I slam the door of his truck a little too hard.
My dad looks up and down the nearly deserted street and adds out the window, “Or I’ll pick you up if you want.” He waves when he sees Angelica approaching the restaurant door.
I don’t respond, but walk away quickly.
Angelica waves back and waits for me. We hug. “You hungry?” she asks.
I shrug. “Just a soda. Maybe some fries.” The whole place has the lingering odor of disinfectant mixed with whatever was burned during the dinner rush.
We order and find a booth in the back but not too close to the bathroom. I sit so I can watch who comes in.
“Okay, where was I?”
“Jacob playing peacemaker and tequila,” I say.
“Yeah, so he gets in Francisco’s Jeep. That new one he bought over in Phoenix, you seen it?” she asks.
“Green, no top?”
“Yeah. They get in and start driving too fast down that dirt road, you know, the one that goes up to Second Avenue.”
“You were way out there?”
“Way out there.” She reaches over to nibble on a few of my French fries then takes a huge slurp of her chocolate shake before continuing.
“They kicked up all kinds of dirt and everyone was coughing, spitting it out. Even Francisco’s friends were threatening his tail lights. That one that just moved here from Indio with his Tio, he’s cute.”
I sip my Dr. Pepper. “Angelica?”
“Sorry. So we see them driving away and a few hours later, some one said, ‘Hey, where’s that guy who went to get tequila?’ and no one answered him. There is still beer, so who cares. I’m buzzed, everything’s all hazy.”
“Angelica, how long did you guys wait for the tequila?”
“Jack didn’t want to wait anymore and you know if we stay out too late, that damn rooster next door to mi Tia starts making all kinds of noise and mi Tia wakes up and then we get caught.”
“Was Jack drinking too? Dumb question. Why would he go out there if he wasn’t going to drink?”
“Shh, let me finish. It gets better.” Angelica must have forgotten she was conveying a fatal tragedy and she starts telling me what happened like she was watching it on television.
“I hear Isabel behind me getting all mad at Jack because you know how he always tries to get her to do it when he’s drunk.” Angelica slurps the last of her shake. “So I think we are going soon and I try to drink my beer as fast as I can.”
I interrupt her because I know what happened next. “You threw up, didn’t you?”
“Right on Jack’s shoes.” She cracks up like the movie has a happy ending. “He is still pissed at me.”
“Wait, when did all this happen?” I had been operating on the assumption that it was the night before I returned, Friday. But with no eight am bell to force people into class the next day, it could have been any night.
“Wednesday. Listen. We leave and see three cop cars blocking the road. Jack turned off his lights and stopped so we could see them, but they couldn’t see us. They pulled Francisco out of the Jeep and put him into the ambulance. Then we see them looking around across the irrigation ditch. Jacob had been thrown from the Jeep, onto a cement block, killed instantly.”
“You could see all that?” The barrage of details makes me want to barf.
“No, I read it in Thursday’s paper. But we didn’t wait there for the cops to see us. Jack put it in reverse and we took the long way home. Man, we are so lucky we didn’t get caught.”
“Lucky.” I can’t say anything else. Stupid Jacob. “Why didn’t anyone stop them from driving all drunk like that?”
“What? Who? No one stops anyone. Ever. They just, I don’t know.” Angelica is clearly not traumatized even though she was there. Why wasn’t I there instead of building houses for people who I don’t even know? I bet God doesn’t even have an answer for that.
“I would have stopped them.”
“What? No. You might have tried to keep Jacob from leaving because you were jealous of the other girl he was talking to. But you would have been the most excited about tequila.”
Angelica is right. I love tequila. My mom would die if she knew. She blames alcohol for her brother’s and her father’s deaths. That’s why she left the Catholic Church and joined the Baptists. They are more critical of such habits.
“Angelica, school on Monday is going to be awful.”
Angelica lowers her voice. “I know. The funeral is not until Wednesday. The paper said they had to bring somebody in special to take care of the crime scene. Can you believe it they are calling it that, a crime scene? Nothing exciting like this ever happens here.”
I want to be angry with her for thinking all this is exciting. I want to scream at her and Sheila and Chris and Francisco because I cannot scream at Jacob.
I call my mom about a quarter to eleven but tell her not to have dad pick us up. Angelica and I want to stroll. We live in a town where it is still safe to be a young woman alone at night. Police patrol the streets at regular intervals, mostly to protect people from themselves. That’s why we all know to party outside city limits.
“You think anyone is out there tonight?” I ask Angelica as we cross the main drag and walk east towards the car wash. I went there with Jacob when he first got his car for Christmas.
“Out where? Second Avenue? Probably.”
“I want to go out there.”
“I just want to see it for myself.” I look at my watch. “It’s not too late. We can see if anyone getting off shift at Safeway wants to go out.”
“You don’t want to call Chris?” Angelica asks.
I glare at her and give her the quick version of his jealous stupidity. “How much cash you got?” We would have to buy a twelve pack in exchange for the ride.
Angelica reaches in all her pockets and pulls out a five-dollar bill which surprises her. “Look!”
I have a five too and we hurry past the T-shirt shop, a hair salon, and a bank before we cross back over to the partially-lit grocery store parking lot. Shelia’s cousin Ralph is getting into his Nissan 280Z.
“Ooh, Lisett, not him. Remember how he got all touchy with Isabel at the fair last year?”
“Yeah. His whole family is weird.” I frown, remembering Shelia’s obnoxious hair and clothes at Chris’s game.
“There’s Ramiro,” Angelica says.
“My cousin Chuy’s friend. He’ll take us. And he’s cute.”
As she walks faster, ahead of me, to catch him, I mumble, “I just hope he doesn’t have a girlfriend who’ll want to kick our asses later.”
Ramiro takes the ten dollars and agrees to drive us. “But I’m only staying one hour, then I got to get home. I’m back on at eight tomorrow.”
I use the pay phone and tell my mom that we are going to watch a movie at Isabel’s. Angelica calls Isabel to make sure she isn’t going to get us in trouble later.
It takes twenty minutes to get all the way out to the party. At first, I stand away from the crowd, the damp smell of the weeds surrounding the river are more pungent than the campfire smoke from this position. Stars are brighter and more plentiful when there are no street lamps or traffic signals to interfere with the path of their light. Angelica walks over to mingle with the unfamiliar faces. It is as if she has forgotten why we are here, what I need to do. I watch everyone drink. Cigarette tips move in and out of the shadows that their bodies cast with the help of the flames. Someone’s truck window is open and “Pour some sugar on me” fills the party zone. I want to enjoy it, to forget about what happened when I wasn’t here. I want something stronger than beer to numb the pain. I want to ask God, Why? But I know there won’t be an answer.
I fall to my knees in the sand and cover my face with my hands. Two more Def Leppard songs play through until someone decides to change the CD. Without the music, I hear people laughing and talking. My anger begins to surface. I look up at the circle of chattering young people and imagine myself pushing them all into the pile of burning wooden pallets. “That’s what you get for letting Jacob die.” I growl to no one in particular. They seem far away, acting like nothing ever happened.
I pick up the sandy dirt and let it fall through my fingers slowly to the other hand. Back and forth I continue my sifting. With each handful I pick out a few sticks or a rock too big to pass through the narrow openings. Then I begin throwing small rocks and sticks just a few feet away from my squatting self but in their general direction. I throw bigger chunks of hill and tree. Then I grab handfuls of earth and fling them harder. I feel myself walking towards them and see myself knocking beer bottles and cans out of people’s hands and taking their keys.
But really, I am still kneeling by the car, too scared and empty to move. Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” comes on. I yell over the noise, “My friend died.” And like a six-year-old, I whisper, “I loved him.”
I fall forward; my hands protect my face from the rough terrain but nothing protects my shins and knees or the tops of my sandaled feet. I cry, the steamy snot sticking to my hands and face until I feel two small hands on my back.
“Shit, Angelica, she’s fucked up,” Ramiro says.
“No, she’s just sad,” Angelica says matter-of-factly. Catholics must learn to mourn differently. “Let’s take her home, Ramiro. I’ll clean her up there.”
By the time Ramiro pulls into my driveway, I am calm again. All the lights are off; my parents must have gone to bed, assuming I stayed over at Isabel’s. “Thanks, man.”
He looks at me like I am still crouched and crying. “You gonna be okay?”
I nod and hug Angelica. “I’ll call you after church tomorrow.”
She grins and tries to make me feel like a normal girl again. “We can plan our outfits for Monday.
I can’t smile back. “Monday is going to be hell.”
She nods and slides closer to Ramiro as they drive away.
That night I wake up from my dreams holding Jacob and shaking us. I say to him, “If I hold on when I wake up, then you won’t really be dead.” I wake up crying and by morning I have no voice left.
My mom interrupts my last dream with the smell of bacon frying. Jacob says he’d rather eat pancakes and slips out of my embrace. I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to go to Sunday service where I might see Sheila or other annoying people who will ask if I’m okay. Do I look okay? My reflection in the bathroom mirror says no. I try to wake myself up with a cool shower, my second one in the last twelve hours. If I stay in the pulsating stream long enough, maybe it will wash away my pain. I still can’t find the words to pray.
“Lisett?” I hear my dad’s voice through the bathroom door. He knocks, then calls my name again. “Are you okay in there?”
“I’ll be out in a minute.” He is probably more worried I’ll use up all the hot water than he is about my emotional state. “Hurry up. Breakfast is getting cold.”
When I emerge with my hair combed and a long comfortable church dress on, I just want to crawl back under the blankets. Chris is sitting at the kitchen table talking to my dad about the NBA playoffs. Mom is whirling around the kitchen with a bright red apron on, serving them both plates full of scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns. I feel like I’m stuck in a bad 1950s film. I put on a fake smile and look at the clock. How can they all pretend nothing happened?
“Good morning, Lisett.”
“Good morning, Chris. Good morning, Father. Breakfast looks delicious, Mother.”
My voice is half an octave higher than normal. My dad raises an eyebrow. I never call them mother and father. But we never have this all-American breakfast so it seems appropriate to play along.
“Please pass the juice,” I say.
Chris looks at me with his head tilted to the left and isn’t listening to my dad’s question about the Phoenix Suns. I blink back at him and try to keep my smile pasted to my face. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m afraid to pick up my fork and take a bite. The scratch and clink of the others’ eating motions echoes in my brain.
My mom turns to me and says, “After church today, Chris thought we could all go –”
I explode. “Are you crazy. How can you all act like nothing happened? Like today is a normal Sunday?” I throw my chair back behind me as I get up and I don’t know where to go. My room is the most obvious choice but I feel like I’m suffocating on the dense air concentration inside our house. I open the front door, letting all the flies in, and rush out into the bright heat. I only know I’ve stopped moving when I feel my dad’s hands on my shoulders. I hear his voice behind me.
“Lisett, even if you had been there, there was nothing you could have done.”
I turn around and cry into his white undershirt. He doesn’t try to stop my sadness. He doesn’t shush me and tell me to pray. He lets me cry until I can’t make any more tears. He holds me up as we walk back to the house. Chris isn’t there when I get back inside and I don’t ask why. My mom has cleaned up breakfast and my chair mess and she is sitting at the edge of the couch with a ladies magazine, trying to look patient.
My dad announces, “I’m going to get changed and we’ll go to the later service.”
I bite the inside of my cheek and take a deep breath. So just like that I’m really supposed to wear my regular face and pretend it is a regular Sunday and eat regular food like a regular person.
Pastor Johnson is sweating before he even walks up to the pulpit. He watches as the choir finishes the last verse of “Rejoice in the Lord.” He uses a small white towel to wipe his shiny bald forehead; he cools his gravelly voice with a swig from his water bottle; then, he looks out at his congregation, pausing at particular people to offer a smile of recognition. I usually avoid direct eye contact, but today he catches me in his gaze and does not smile. He leans into the microphone, emphasizing the letters t and p for dramatic effect. “Today, I want to talk to our young people.” There are shifting noises, pants on the pews. “Today, it is possible that some of you do not feel like rejoicing.” Parents agree with a murmur. “Perhaps you are angry with God. Perhaps you think he has abandoned you.” Each “you” is drawn out longer than the previous one and he loses his breath on the last one.
I want to stand up and scream, “Of course I am angry,” but my regular self stays in control.
“Take a moment, young people, and look at what the Lord has given you. See your mother. See your father. The Lord has blessed you. Rejoice with me.” He motions to the choir who sings the chorus again and I feel rage tickling the back of my throat; my tears are not staying inside my eyes. Pastor Johnson looks directly at me again and motions for the choir to stop. “But something stops us from singing.” Every “s” is followed by a spray of his hot sticky breath and I want to be anywhere but in this pew, my arm rubbing my dad’s arm and my mom’s sweaty hand on my leg. “Something has caused us all some pain. Some of you say, thank God it wasn’t me. It is in this time of sorrow and loss that must show our strength. We must rejoice.” The choir repeats the chorus of the song with no visible cue, but I watch Pastor Johnson. He sips water from his secret stash behind the pulpit. He tries to smile but his forehead has those tight lines of concentration that make a V between his eyebrows. He doesn’t know what to do or say either.
“Excuse me.” I climb over my dad and exit the side door. I slide down the stucco wall, causing my dress to rise up in the back and I feel my legs exposed. I don’t care. I keep sliding until I am sitting in the shade on the cool cement. From the open door, I hear the choir finish that song and Pastor Johnson continues as if I never left. As if I had not just spent the last seven days with him pounding nails and sawing boards under Mexico’s excruciating sun rays. “Is this what it’s like, Lord? Is this normal?”
Sheila comes out of the nearby bathroom and walks towards me, shading her eyes. “Lisett? Who are you talking to?” She looks around. “Why are you on the ground?”
“I don’t know.” I hear the harshness in my voice and realize she doesn’t mean to be so stupid. “I just needed some air.”
“I’m not pregnant.”
“I just got my period.”
I am not sure how to respond. She reaches down to help me up. I accept her hand.
As we walk back towards the door she says, “Pastor Johnson told my mom he wants you to read the scripture at Jacob’s funeral service. He said you have the best voice.”
I look into the open door and see Pastor Johnson still sweating and wiping, but he is finished talking. The ushers are passing the basket and the choir starts slowly singing, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”
I join my parents back inside the church, trying my best to sing and to believe the words I’m singing. I try to forget the horror that Angelica witnessed. I look at my mom. I look at my dad. Then I look at Pastor Johnson who is also singing along. I look down to where Shelia has returned to sit with her own mom and notice for the first time they have matching sculpted hair. Beyond them I see Jacob’s cousins, Isaiah and Esther, with Jacob’s mom in between. She is trying to sing too, intermittently dabbing her eyes with a pink lace handkerchief. Isaiah wears a hard down-turned moth and a dark blue button-up shirt. He doesn’t sing but with his eyes closed he sways a little, keeping time with the hymn. Esther sings; her rich alto voice finds my ear and makes me feel safe. Safe in the arms of Jesus.
For 14 years, Tisha Marie Reichle has been teaching reading and writing to 100 plus not-always-willing teenagers and struggles to find time for her own work. For 10 years, she has been writing and revising a novel about the Chicana/o Student Movement at UCLA. Her stories utilize the desert landscape of her childhood and the urban chaos of her adulthood. She earned her MFA in 2009 at Antioch University Los Angeles. Some of her writing has been published at Annotation Nation, Travel by the Books, and The Splinter Generation; a short story is forthcoming in 34th Parallel.