by Daniel A. Olivas
Father James Cortés placed the compact disc into one of the five circular cradles of his Yamaha player. With a click and a whirl of the internal mechanism, the steady piano-rhythm commenced backed by some kind of brass instrument – was it a flügelhorn? – that lay the carpet for the Beach Boys’ malleable harmonies. Though he and his grammar school classmates danced to Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five and Carlos Santana, once Father Cortés left most of friends behind and entered a prestigious, mostly white Jesuit high school, the sounds of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys became the background music for his Southern California adolescence.
Now a fit and trim man of forty-five, he listened to all types of music, the music of his congregation. Jazz, salsa, rap, old school, rock, pop, smooth jazz, world music, everything. But at times of personal turmoil, he wanted to fall into the comfort and sublime production of the post-surf sound Beach Boys. “God Only Knows” bathed Father Cortés in nostalgic days of Friday mass at the campus chapel, Saturday night football games and brilliant introductions to Latin, ancient cultures and religious thought of the twentieth century. He couldn’t explain why this particular group consoled him. Perhaps the melancholy undertones masked by the joyous, perfect melding of voices spoke to him, reached him on some subliminal level. Maybe Brian Wilson’s melodies acted as healing fetishes like the ones used by the Sonoran Desert’s Pima and Papago Indians who believed that pernicious entities, mostly animals, caused life’s numerous ills. They simulated the offending creatures in miniature, wooden charms to be pressed upon the afflicted areas of the patient’s body. He remembered that the Native people relied on the figure of a snake to cure stomach ailments, a horned lizard for foot sores, while feverish babies required a gila monster. Not too different from praying to St. Anthony of Padua when you’ve misplaced something, or St. Jude Thaddeus when facing a lost cause, Father Cortés thought. It’s all essentially the same.
He reached for a plaid shirt that his mother bought him two years ago, the last gift she would give her only son before succumbing to ovarian cancer. Though his mother realized that, at least technically, her son had taken a vow of poverty, Father Cortés acquired over the years a useful and wide array of birthday gifts, courtesy of the late Guadalupe Canción Cortés. The priest cherished the CD player. His “civvies” were a close second because he refused to dress as a priest when he worked the soup kitchen on Saturday mornings. Father Cortés buttoned his shirt and tucked its long tails into his crisp khakis. “Sail on Sailor” started up and he closed is eyes and took a deep breath. He started to sway to the song’s rhythm and tried to slow down his heartbeat that had been elevated since the alarm went off at 6:00 a.m.
“It will be okay,” he whispered. His eyes opened as the song ended. “It will be okay.”
* * *
The old, woodframed house creaked with the other nuns’ morning rituals of bringing to life the new day. Sister Antonia’s roommate, Sister Olivia, made her usual racket just below in the kitchen, but the end result would be a fine, filling breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, honeydew melon and scrambled eggs. As Sister Antonia dressed, she tried to give her attention to a special report on the California recall election that emanated from Sister Olivia’s clock/radio. Such a waste of money, she thought. Money that can be used to feed hungry families. “Such a waste,” the nun finally said aloud as she zipped her Capri pants. Saturday meant work at the soup kitchen and civilian dress. Freedom. As former Governor Pete Wilson spoke of the need for change, Sister Antonia slipped her little feet into Keds sneakers and stood quickly. Too quickly. She wobbled on the pads of her feet and fell backwards onto her bed. As the nun wiped perspiration from her upper lip, a loud rap on the door brought her to her senses.
“Breakfast,” said a husky, German-accented voice through the thick wood.
“Coming,” said Sister Antonia. The voice could only be Sister Gertrude whose apparent goal in life was to make certain this small community of nuns ate their three squares a day.
“Lazy bones,” laughed the voice. “There won’t be anything left if you don’t hurry.”
“Coming,” she answered again. “I’ll be right there.”
Sister Antonia took a deep breath. Pete Wilson’s voice still filled her small bedroom. Bastard, she thought as she reached over and clicked off the radio. The nun shook her head in disgust as she remembered Wilson’s campaign to pass Proposition 187 and stomp on the already suffering undocumented immigrants. People like her maternal grandparents who made their way from central Mexico to San Diego when Eisenhower was president. People who had no choice but to leave their home to make money just to live at poverty’s edge in a strange city. She would always be embarrassed that this pinched man, this selfish, vicious politician had been mayor of her beloved San Diego.
Sister Antonia stood, slowly this time, and straightened her cotton blouse. “Time to eat,” she said to herself as if to encourage her feet to move. “Time to eat.”
* * *
Mrs. Estrada’s large, beefy back met Father Cortés as he entered the kitchen. The July sun invaded the small but neat kitchen and reflected off Mrs. Estrada’s white, cotton blouse making her glow like a full moon. She turned and offered a smile that reminded the priest of succulent slice of sandía. She held a sizzling skillet filled precariously with a high mound of chorizo con huevos.
“¡Buenos días!” Mrs. Estrada said. “¿Tiene Ud. hambre?”
So formal, thought Father Cortés. So, old country. “No, thanks. Just coffee and toast will be fine.”
Mrs. Estrada’s smile slipped away as if she had just learned that her ten-year-old Siamese cat, El Cucuy, had been run over by an SUV.
The priest sighed. He worked hard to keep both his weight and cholesterol in check. But Mrs. Estrada was a godsend compared to the brusque and slovenly Mrs. Ballesteros.
“Okay, just a little,” he offered. “But you must promise me to take the rest home to your family.”
His housekeeper’s smile reappeared and she jumped into action preparing a plate and pouring a large mug of coffee.
“You have a big day helping those people,” she said as she served Father Cortés who had already settled into his chair reaching for the newspaper.
“Yes,” said the priest. “A big day.”
* * *
“Pass the melon, please.”
Sister Antonia looked up from her untouched plate and searched for the source of the request. She couldn’t focus on any of the faces. In defeat, the nun finally asked, “Who needed melon?”
Sister Olivia leaned playfully into her. “Over here, silly. How could you not recognize you own roommate?”
“Sorry,” said Sister Antonia as she reached for the large platter of sliced melon.
The other nuns chatted away about their work at the hospital. Sister Olivia tilted her small head toward her friend. “Are you getting the flu?”
Sister Antonia purposely reached for her fork and filled it with scrambled eggs. “I’m fine. Just a little tired.” She placed the eggs into her mouth and chewed. The nun knew that an empty stomach simply aggravated her nausea.
Sister Antonia swallowed and took a deep breath. “I’m sure,” she said through a forced smile. “I’m peachy.”
* * *
As his used Honda Odyssey exited the freeway, Father Cortés searched the radio dial for something other than commercials. The priest rebuked himself for leaving his CD case in his bedroom. He finally settled on a public radio station as Nina Simone began what he believed to be the definitive version of “Strange Fruit.” The priest took the first right toward the soup kitchen and could see men, women and too many children lining the sidewalk for breakfast. He parked and, after many hellos and hiyas to the now-familiar, desperate faces, Father Cortés entered the kitchen.
“We’ll be open in five minutes,” he mouthed holding up five fingers for emphasis as he closed the glass door behind him with a loud, metallic squeak.
Once inside, the priest witnessed the well-orchestrated work of the high school boys and girls under the guidance of Sister Antonia. The nun wore a long-sleeved, white cotton blouse that disappeared smoothly into a pair of green, Old Navy Capri pants revealing a few inches of smooth, brown calf and ankle. Her little feet sat sockless in slightly worn canvass sneakers. Such an outfit would normally not raise an eyebrow. But on Sister Antonia’s delicate, refined, long-legged physique, the ensemble put Father Cortés in the mind of a young Audrey Hepburn’s screen time with Fred Astaire in Funny Face.
They worked side-by-side for almost two hours, setting up, cooking and serving the homeless. Except for a few directions given to the high school volunteers, the priest and nun said no more than a half dozen words to each other. The priest’s mind wandered repeatedly to the thought he’d carried for a week now. A week since Sister Antonia had told him she was pregnant with his child. What would they do? Leave their respective vocations? No. That would not happen. Not if Father Cortés had any say in it. And why wouldn’t he? He is the man, after all. There was no choice. There was only one choice. No baby. Period. Pure and simple. God is loving. He would forgive, wouldn’t he? How could he not? Even St. Thomas Aquinas argued that abortion was not a sin if done before “quickening,” before the awakening of the fetus, before a woman could tell that there was a life growing inside her. But the Church had said no, we can’t afford to lose one soul. It was Aquinas, wasn’t it? Or was it Moore? Father Cortés couldn’t quite remember though he could picture the classroom, his instructor, Father Williams, and even the faces of the young men who sat attentively, respectfully in the other chairs.
“All done here,” said Sister Antonia.
Father Cortés looked up from the pot he had been washing for too long.
“Looks clean to me,” she smiled.
The priest turned off the water and reached for a towel. “Yes, clean.”
“I need to get back.”
Father Cortés put the pot on the counter and carefully hung up the towel. “Well,” he said, “I have a surprise for you.”
Sister Antonia smiled like a high school girl. “What?”
The priest reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small envelope. “Here, open this.”
The nun looked as radiant as he’d ever seen her. Why wasn’t she panicked like he was? What was she thinking about this? About the situation?
“Tickets to the Old Globe!” she almost screamed. “Julius Caesar!”
“Tonight,” said Father Cortés. He felt triumphant for a moment.
Sister Antonia looked down at herself. “But I’m not dressed for the theater.”
“Don’t worry,” said the priest as he put his hand on the nun’s shoulder. “It’s very casual. Everything from Dockers to shorts.”
“But the Sister Gertrude won’t let me.”
Father Cortés let out a little laugh. “Took care of it. I told her that we had a lot to do for the kitchen.”
The nun blushed. “Okay,” she said. “This is wonderful.”
“Nothing, really,” said the priest. “Just a little treat.”
* * *
Parking in Balboa Park was a pain and Father Cortés found himself wishing ill on every vehicle that took a space before he could. Finally, after going up and down several aisles, he spotted a burnt orange PT Cruiser pull out clumsily just a few yards ahead. Ah! He had it all to himself.
“Success!” said Sister Antonia.
“Yes,” he answered. “Let’s run. We have only a half-hour to cram some food down our throats.”
The Old Globe food court bustled with casually dressed Shakespeare-lovers. Father Cortés ordered two large coffees and turkey croissant sandwiches. They ate quickly, in silence, glancing occasionally at each other only to look away. Things were different. How could they not be? The priest let his eyes rest on this beautiful woman. The woman he loved. Maybe they could start a life together. Somehow. Somewhere. But each time this possibility slipped into his mind, Father Cortés realized that it was pure silliness. His emotions talking, nothing more. He would not let twenty years of priesthood be flushed down so easily. He would not become a scandal, the one his parishioners would whisper about for years to come. No. Father Cortés had worked too hard for what he had.
The theater’s electronic bells roused them from their silence. The priest and nun stood, careful not to touch, and joined the stream of bodies leading toward the entrance. The now cooling air felt good on Father Cortés’ face and he was pleased that the play would take place at the outdoor festival stage. They found their seats. The priest scanned the stage: an apocalyptic setting meant to convey some horrific period in the not so distant future. He glanced at Sister Antonia whose wide eyes also scanned the stage with great anticipation of hearing Shakespeare’s words. The priest smiled and flipped through the program. Though he had no doubt that Robert Gammell would make a very fine Julius Caesar, Father Cortés had a few misgivings about Robert Foxworth’s Brutus. The priest had trouble envisioning Foxworth as anyone but the noble Chase Gioberti battling his venal aunt, Angela Channing, for several years in the nighttime soap opera, Falcon Crest. But Father Cortés would hold all judgment and just enjoy the play.
And this is when it happened. When the priest took a path that he had hoped never to take, never envisioned that he could follow. The play had started and the actors strutted and declaimed and gesticulated. The cool air, the bright klieg lights, the audience all conspired to shut down Father Cortés’ senses. He no longer sat there next to his lover. Sister Antonia was now his enemy, the person who could do more harm to him than anyone else. And she had no right to have such power over the priest. The nun was nothing more than a silly girl, an immature, gullible little thing. But in her failings, she possessed the ability to bring this fine man down. All it took from the nun was one phone call to the right person in the archdiocese. Or perhaps a reporter. Father Cortés’ stomach flipped and a cold veneer of perspiration spread over his face, arms, back. The actors spoke gibberish. He could sit there no longer.
“I’ll be back,” the priest whispered.
Sister Antonia looked up, startled. “Oh?” she said softly trying not to disturb anyone.
Father Cortés didn’t answer. He stood and stepped over the nun’s legs and was gone in a moment. Sister Antonia returned her gaze to the actors. The clarity of the cool, night air imbued the stage with a sharpness that almost overwhelmed the nun’s senses. She closed her eyes; the actors’ words became muffled, far away. Sister Antonia rubbed her small tummy and took in a long, slow breath. This is the beginning, she thought. This is what God wants for me. For us. This can’t be wrong. This can’t be sinful. And Sister Antonia knew without a doubt that her baby would be beautiful and healthy and brilliant. She had no doubt whatsoever.
The nun’s eyes suddenly popped open with the commotion of the actors. The men crouched over Caesar’s lifeless body and bathed their hands in the dead man’s blood.
“Sorry,” whispered Father Cortés as he settled back into his seat. “Too much coffee.”
Sister Antonia nodded but kept her eyes on the actors as they raised their bloody hands for all to behold.
“It’s okay,” she whispered back. “It’s okay.”
* * *
“I can’t see it,” said Sister Antonia. “I don’t remember where we parked.”
Father Cortés patted her shoulder, the first time he intentionally touched her the entire evening. The crowd jostled them and the evening was that much cooler now that the play was over.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I remember.”
The priest guided the nun down three aisles and there sat the old, blue van. The nun greeted it with an, “Ah!”
Father Cortés added: “Parish luxury. Nothing but the best.”
As they approached the passenger side, they noticed that a Volvo had been parked too close to the van. Behind the Volvo, a young woman struggled to fold a stroller with her right hand as she clutched her toddler—a chubby-cheeked girl—with her left. Before either the priest or nun could jump in to assist, she’d successfully collapsed the stroller and swung it expertly into her open trunk. The toddler let out a squeal of delight at her mother’s deftness.
“Bravo!” said Sister Antonia.
The woman and toddler looked up and smiled in unison. Without missing a beat, the mother nodded a good-bye, put the girl into her own little, cocoon-like carseat in the back, strapped her in, and got behind the wheel. As she pulled out slowly, the nun smiled broadly, caught up in the simple joy of this mother and child. She looked up to share her smile with Father Cortés, but he was not smiling. He averted his eyes toward the night sky.
“Clear night,” he said.
Sister Antonia studied his face. Her smile disappeared.
“Let’s go,” she said. “It’s getting cold.”
* * *
He loved the quiet of Mrs. Estrada’s day off each Monday. Father Cortés could eat as lightly as he wished, take care of important calls, be independent. Today, the priest needed to do research. He clicked on the Google bookmark and typed in: “los angeles abortion clinics.” It had to be done away from San Diego. In a big city where it was easy to disappear, not be noticed. The search engine brought up only four hits, one of which was an anti-abortion organization. Abortion. He hated that word. So ugly. An easy word for the Church to spit out with disdain. The word itself sounded evil. But it was a necessary one. An option that was the lesser of two evils. The baby could not come into this world. What good could come of that? Such a birth would lead to nothing more than a lifetime of shame and eventual failure. And at what other cost? The congregation would certainly lose Father Cortés. The Church could not let him keep his flock even with the extreme shortage of priests, particularly Spanish-speaking clergy, to fill the still-thriving parishes. And what of Sister Antonia? She would lose everything too. She couldn’t possibly understand the importance of her decision. The nun was still a silly girl in so many ways. She needed Father Cortés to make the decision. The only decision.
In truth, if one really thought about it, there were an infinite number of options. Father Cortés remembered the Borges short story, “The Library of Babel,” where the great writer once again wrestled with metaphor to explore the complex reality of infinity. This nun and this priest had infinite options, like the hexagonal galleries of Borges’ library. So many permutations. The nun could run off to Mexico and have her baby there and never return. Not a bad option. Or she could go along with an abortion. Imperfect but cleaner. No baby to come back to the United States as an adult searching for his or her father. Or they could leave their vocations and marry. No. Takes two to tango. No way, not if the priest had any say in it. Or worse yet, she could have her baby and announce to the world the sordid circumstances. So many ways this thing could go. If he had the inclination, Father Cortés could spin out dozens and dozens of roads they could take together or separately and still come up with new ideas, some outrageous and improbable, but all possible in the physical world.
The priest would sweet-talk her. Take her to dinner. Share a little wine. Let her know he did indeed care. But then he’d turn serious. Frank. Totally honest. He’d lay out the options and show through pure logic that there was really only one option. She would be hurt at first. Scared. Is it a sin? She’d ask him. It is, isn’t it? she’d cry. And he’d give a little history lesson. St. Thomas Aquinas and all that. Yes, it was Aquinas, not Moore. Thomistic ethics. And St. Augustine, too. Right? Abortion as a sin was a relatively new concept. Nowhere in the Bible. He would review some of his old history books. He had to win this one through rigorous logic. Abortion was not a sin in and of itself. It was a valid option. The only option. Sister Antonia would be doing her rounds ministering at the hospital today. Father Cortés would surprise her, take her to dinner. It would all work out.
The priest would prepare both physically and mentally for the evening. He had a light lunch, pulled the appropriate books from his library, refreshed his memory on the subject, practiced his little speech. After a few hours, he went for a good, hard run and ended his preparation with a scalding shower, a shave and reservations at Sister Antonia’s favorite Italian restaurant. As he drove to the hospital just before sunset, the Beach Boys’ harmonies filled his van. He felt good, right on course. The priest eased into a parking space not to far from the hospital entrance. As he approached the information desk, he recognized Mrs. Stahl, a handsome, efficient woman who dispensed information better than anyone else who staffed that desk. She looked up and nodded at the priest.
“Father, how are you?” said Mrs. Stahl with another nod.
“Fine,” he said. “You look lovely today.”
Mrs. Stahl blushed. Father Cortés was one of a few men who could do this. If she were Catholic, she’d no doubt attend each and every Mass he said. “How may I help you today?” she asked.
“I have a meeting, dinner meeting, planned with Sister Antonia,” he said carefully. “She’s on today, isn’t she?”
With these words, Mrs. Stahl’s smile disappeared. “She was supposed to be on.”
Father Cortés leaned into the hard edge of the wooden counter. “What do you mean?”
“Something is happening with her,” she almost whispered.
“What?” He clutched the counter to steady himself. “What?” he asked again.
Mrs. Stahl looked around. She then leaned toward the priest. “They can’t find her.”
This was excruciating. “What do you mean?” He bit down hard on each word.
“She’s up and left,” she said. “Gone. No trace whatsoever.”
“Who told you this?”
“Sister Gertrude. She’s in a total panic. All the nuns are.” And then Mrs. Stahl added the kicker: “They’ve called the police.”
Father Cortés fell back on his heels and pulled away from the counter. “Thank you,” he said as he walked away.
“Are you okay, Father?” asked Mrs. Stahl as the priest moved toward the sliding glass doors. “Are you okay?”
The priest reached the van and took a deep breath. What was Sister Antonia doing? he thought. What the hell is she doing? The air grew cool as the sun began to disappear. Four small birds played happily in a puddle by the van’s front, left tire. He took another deep breath and wiped his forehead with his jacket sleeve. Father Cortés knew exactly what the nun was up to, only he didn’t know where—Mexico probably. The priest had no power to do anything about it. He shook his head and let out a little laugh. And so the words finally left his lips: “Silly girl,” he said. “Silly little girl.”
© 2003 Daniel A. Olivas
Daniel A. Olivas is an attorney with the California Department of Justice. He has published stories and poems in such venues as Exquisite Corpse, Pacific Review, LatinoLA, Red River Review, Southern Cross Review, In Posse Review and the Los Angeles Times. A novella, "The Courtship of Maria Rivera Peña," appeared from Silver Lake Publishing in 2000, and a children's book, "Benjamin and the Word," is forthcoming from Arte Público Press, as is a second collection, "Devil Talk," from Bilingual Press.