NOTE: This is an unpublished excerpt of a longer work-in-progress.
The address on Manny’s case file was for the only business in what passed for a town — a rusted Texaco station with gas pumps that looked more quaint than functional, and a sign, “If you need gas, ring the bell.”
He didn’t need gas, but he rang the bell and a man appeared from inside, wiping his hands with his baseball cap. “Fill ‘er up?”
Manny shook his head. “I’m looking for Evangeline Barlow.”
Baseball Cap chuckled. “‘You mean Evi. Trailer round back.”
“Cash only. She don’t take credit cards.”
Ah. So not the only business in town.
The trailer was barely that — a ramshackle RV and two lawn chairs set on what looked to be an old basketball court. A tomato plant held on for dear life in a container on the fold-out steps. And another sign, “Knock before entering!!!”
“What d’you want?” a woman’s voice yelled.
“Yes, hello, I’m Manny Archuleta from—”
“—Fuck off, I’m havin’ a baby. Regulars by appointment only.”
“Okay, yes, I’m sorry to bother you. But I, um, well… I do have an appointment. I’m with—”
The door flew open and a very pregnant young woman in a frayed track suit sized him up.
“Yeah, okay,” she finally said. “But I can’t do doggie on account of it’s bad for the baby, and I’m outta condoms, so you gotta supply your own. Gas station has ‘em if you don’t.”
“Yeah, er… that’s not…” Doing his best to appear un-fazed, Manny held out a business card,.“I’m from the Department of Child & Family Services. Manuel Archuleta. I’m here to go over your adoption paperwork. I tried to call to confirm, but—”
“—Oh shit, sorry ‘bout that, phone’s out. They do that when you don’t pay the bill, greedy rat-bastards.” She stepped back from the door. “Come on in then. ‘Less you wanna sit in the garden.” She laughed, a raw cackle like soda water spilled on dry ground.
Inside was the kind of tidy that came from not having much money to buy things with. A Costco-3-pack of Fruit Loops and an oversized bag of sunflower seeds on the kitchen counter, a Bible and a Sudoku book on the couch. Evi nodded towards a built-in Formica table, and Manny took a seat and opened the file. “This won’t take long. I’m just here to review everything and make sure you’re doing okay.”
Evi burped as she sat down, and then cackled again. “I got gas at both ends and I’m big as a ripe tick, so yeah, peachy.”
Manny scanned the file. “It says here the father is unknown.”
“Must be true then.”
“Do you know who the father is?”
She scooped a handful of sunflower seeds from the bag. “Don’t see as that’s any of your goddamned business.”
“Well, if the father is known, then we’d need his consent—”
Manny knew enough to know when to let himself be lied to. “Okay, then.”
That seemed to earn him a bit of trust, and Evi sat down and pushed the bag of seeds over to him. He ignored it and looked back down at the file. “Your due date is… well, anytime, really, it looks like.”
“Looks like is right.” Another cackle as she pushed her belly out and rubbed it with a deep groan. “Gonna miss being pregnant. Gets me a free upgrade to super-size at the Sonic Burger when I tell ‘em I’m eating for two. ‘Course..” she reflected, working her tongue around a seed, “they can’t see me, so I guess I could lie, but the Lord don’t like a liar.”
“Yes, well, here’s the paperwork. I know you’ve been over this on the phone already, but we need to make sure you understand that once the adoption is finalized, you relinquish all of your parental and custodial rights and that there’s no way to—”
The trailer door banged open and a tiny woman with a plastic Kroger bag covering her hair blew in on a cloud of peroxide fumes.
Evi wobbled to her feet, scattering sunflower seeds to the floor. “Ma! Don’t come in here when you’re dying your hair. The bleach is bad for the baby.”
“Quit yer bitching, I just forgot my Sudoku.” Evi’s mother snatched the magazine off the couch before glaring at Manny. “Don’t you be doin’ nothing rough. She’s in the family way.”
“This is the social worker, Ma.”
“Oh yeah? Good then, maybe you can talk some sense into her. Talk her out of throwing away perfectly good government money.” She blew out as quick as she’d come, a high desert twister knocking over garbage cans as it passed through.
Manny turned back to Evi. “So, yes, well… we were talking about the adoption, making sure that you understand that—”
“We just need to make sure that—”
“—I said I get it, okay? I got it the first twenty times y’all told me. Fuck.” She spat out a sunflower shell and it ricocheted off the sink and onto the table.
He sighed. He didn’t want to have to push because pushing got messy and he was not up for messy today. Or ever, really. He’d had enough of messy to last a lifetime. But here he was and here she was, and it was his job to ask, so he did. “Are you sure you want to do this, Ms. Barlow?”
“Ain’t nobody called me Ms. Barlow before.” Cackle.
He waited. They both eyed the seed husk, glistening wet on the Formica surface between them. Finally, she nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Because if you’re not, it is of course your right to keep the child if you choose to—”
“—Yeah, you people are all about the choices.”
“I just mean that—”
“—I already got lots of choices. More than I need. You want to put it up my cooch or in my ass? From the back or the front? No condom is extra — that was Ma’s idea. Ha.” She spit another seed over her shoulder, hard, and this one made it into the sink.
“Because if you want to keep it, that’s your right,” Manny continued gamely. “We can put you in touch with resources. Medical care, counseling. You just need to—”
“—Ma wants me to keep it ‘cuz it means we get extra assistance, food stamps and stuff, but I don’t want to. I mean…” She hesitated. “It’s not like I don’t care about it. I want it to have a good home and everything.”
“Yes, of course,” Manny reassured her, slipping into his soothing social worker voice. “We have a lovely couple ready and eager to provide that home. But if you do decide you want to keep it it would be better to know now, so that we can—”
“—I can’t keep it ‘cuz I wanna be a nun.”
Manny blinked. “A nun? As in—a nun?” he asked weakly.
“—Yeah, ‘as in,’ and don’t go giving me shit ‘cuz I’m a whore, ‘cuz I know that, okay? And don’t go telling me I can’t ‘cuz I already know I can. There are lots of nun whores.”
“Uh, well… I don’t know about lots—”
“Yes, well, she wasn’t a nun or, actually, a whore, that’s something of a misconception— “ Manny looked towards the door, wishing Evi’s mother might burst in and derail the conversation again.
“—She was a whore and she was Jesus’ wife,” Evi said. “That’s way more holy than even a nun.”
“Yes, well, er, that’s somewhat controversial as—”
“— Oh, what, you some kinda nun expert now? That part of your social work, too?”
“No, not exactly.” He could feel her gaze on him, across the tiny table, belly swollen with a baby she couldn’t mother, and at the trailer with its defiant tidiness and then at the hope in her eyes that glowed all out of proportion to her likely future, baby or no baby. And he thought about the yellowed collar in his father’s box of secrets and the extreme improbability that Evi’s mother would be of any more help than his father had been to him, and then he threw up a quick prayer for intercession and a defiant glare at the demon perched on the box of Fruit Loops before turning back to her. “I used to be a priest.”
Evi’s eyes widened. “No shit?”
“Holy shit, so you are a nun expert.”
“Um… no, I wouldn’t say that exactly.”
She bounced out of her seat — a remarkable feat for a nearly nine-month pregnant woman in a tiny trailer, then waddled to the door, flung it open and bellowed into the yard. “Ma, I’m gonna be working in here with the nice social worker, so don’t come in till we’re through!”
“No!” Manny protested, appalled. “We’re not… don’t tell her that!”
“Only way to keep her from coming in,” Evi said, shutting the door. “She knows I’m a whore, so no big deal, but she don’t know about the nun thing and she ain’t gonna know. This is all confidential, right? Like, ‘cuz you’re a priest.”
“I’m not a priest anymore, but yes, it’s confidential because I’m your case worker.”
“Good.” She grabbed two Dr. Peppers from the fridge, slammed them onto the table and sat back down, her face glowing for the first time since he’d arrived and her looking at him like he was the Second Coming in a way that made him at once uncomfortable and proud and ashamed and — this last part was particularly unnerving — a little bit aroused.
“Tell me everything,” she demanded.
“Everything?” he croaked, twisting open the Dr. Pepper and gulping it down.
“About being married to God. You were, right? Or I guess not, because that would be like, a gay marriage thing and the Church ain’t into that. Or is that why you got divorced?”
“From God. On account of being gay.”
“I’m not—” He took a deep breath, cursing his moment of weakness that had gotten him into this situation. He tried to remember what he’d done during his own discernment, what Father Torrance had said to him, but all that came up was that he’d always known, even when he’d tried not to know and even when he sat in senior English class and couldn’t stop staring at Jackie Lujan’s breasts and thought he’d go crazy if he couldn’t touch them and realized that he’d go crazier if he couldn’t give his life to God, but he didn’t think any of that would be especially helpful in this situation. And then he remembered, of all things, Billy Joel saying in some interview that you should be a musician only if all the efforts to talk yourself out of it failed and you couldn’t ignore the persistent voice inside. He had the thought that he probably shouldn’t quote a three-times divorced alcoholic pop star as part of a discernment lesson, and then thought that in this situation, that was perhaps more appropriate than anything Father Torrance or the Church might have to offer.
“Okay, well,” he said, cautious. “The process of discernment—”
“It’s making up your mind, being sure.”
“I told you, I’m sure. Fuck.” She grimaced and looked down at her belly, as though reality had finally sat down at the table and helped itself to a Dr. Pepper. “I know what I am. It’s probably a stupid idea, but I can’t help it. I feel like even with all the crap going on around here and my crap excuse for a life and everything else, I still can’t help it. It’s like underneath it all, there’s this…” She struggled for the words.
“…persistent voice you can’t ignore?”
“Yeah! Fuck yeah, that’s it exactly.”
He sent up a mental thank you to the Piano Man, as Evi took a swig of Dr. Pepper and let out a loud belch. “Have you ever seen God?”
The demon’s wings trembled expectantly.
“’Cuz I have. At the Sonic Burger. It’s why I’m sure.” She scooped up another handful of seeds. “I was putting mayo on my burger, and it started to glow.”
“Yeah. And everything else, too, like, the dashboard of the car and the waiters and the other cars and the trash cans and my French fries and, well, just… everything. And everything got really really quiet — inside my mind, you know?”
Her face had softened, her eyes filled with a radiance that gave him shivers, and he wondered if he’d looked like that when he’d held the stone, and thought probably not, given, well, everything.
“And then everything started to glow,” she continued. “Like, brighter than usual, you know? And there was this… like, everything was connected together, somehow. The burger and the mayo and the cars and the people in them and the waiters and… just everything. And I was connected to all of it, and I don’t know how I knew, but I just did, that the thing connecting everything was God. And that’s when I knew I had to give my life to Him, you know. Had to, no matter if Ma gets pissed or I don’t get to keep the baby or anything else. ‘Cuz when God calls, you can’t let it go to voicemail, you know?”
Manny took another swig, and the Dr. Pepper tasted flat and corrosive in his mouth, as the joy on her face reached down into him and poked at his wound, mocked him with its sincerity, and he had a flash of resentment and jealousy that God had revealed Himself to her, this unworthy, unholy girl who, in spite of all of it, still had the chance for God’s grace in a way that he, Manny, didn’t. He could feel his eyes burning and willed himself not to cry for what was lost to him.
Evi ran her hands over her belly, and he followed their movements, mesmerized, as her voice melted, now thick and low. “It isn’t just Ma. I wanted to keep it, give it a better life somehow, you know? At least I’d know what not to do, right? And like you said, there’s resources and counseling… so I thought maybe… But then God was at the Sonic Burger and I never felt anything like that before…like… like I mattered… like maybe there was something better for me and for the baby, too, you know? And I thought…I thought that maybe if I gave up the baby… that could be the sacrifice.”
“You know, to make things right. Like… like an offering. So He’d forgive me for being a whore and then I could be a nun and maybe feel like I mattered all the time.”
She turned her eyes back towards him and he tried to recall where he’d seen them before and then remembered the icon of Mary in the Nambe church. Evi’s eyes were blue and not brown, but they held the same curious mixture of inconsolable pain and transcendent peace, and then he was humbled to be there, in that grim little trailer, with this pregnant prostitute, who vibrated with the light of God in a way that Father Torrance and all the bishops and priests he’d ever met hadn’t, this woman-child who trusted in God on a bone-deep level that completely eluded Manny and always had, even now, especially now, after the stone. And in the presence of those eyes, something unfamiliar rose in him. A tiny stirring, but strong enough that it beat back the demon hovering over his shoulder, at least for a moment. Manny hadn’t felt it for so long that he almost didn’t recognize it.
That if Evi could be forgiven — if she could believe that it was possible — then maybe, just maybe, so could he.
He felt the urge to kneel, more powerful than he’d ever felt it before, and wanted nothing more than to give in to it. She must have sensed it, because she ducked her head shyly and looked up at him, “Will you… pray with me… Father?” she asked, and he started to protest. I’m not your Father, I’m not a priest… but instead he nodded and sunk to his knees.
She was too pregnant to join him on the floor, and the confined space of the RV created the effect not of the two of them praying together, but of Manny praying to her, and he reached again for the Hail Mary, and heard her voice, tentative and eager, as it stumbled along behind him. Holy Mary, mother of God, blessed be thou and blessed be the fruit of thy womb… pray for us sinners now…
His eyes were closed, so he heard it rather than saw it. The splash of liquid on the chipped linoleum floor. At first he thought she’d knocked over the Dr. Pepper, but then he heard her cry out, thin and childlike.
And opened his eyes to see her sweat pants drenched, the water leaking out the leg holes, and Evi clutching her belly, wide-eyed and very much in labor.