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In Search of Faith MAG
Forty years ago, my grandfather left our family in Los Angeles for a fresh start in New Mexico. He didn't give any reasons, just hopped on his chopper and fled the state, leaving my grandmother and father, a teenager, behind. Not until I was born did he enter the picture again. I saw him alive once, when I was eight, and then my father ensured that we end all contact.
He said he felt obligated – as a grandfather – to teach me things. The meeting resulted in a bloody nose, two empty bottles of tequila, and a dead dog. “He won't be coming back,” my father assured my mother. “That chapter is over.” He retreated to his bedroom and I heard the door slam and a pill bottle open. We didn't hear from him for many years. Then three months ago we received some information on his whereabouts.
A woman called our house while my mother was at church and my father was in the garage. She introduced herself as Jez, my grandfather's girlfriend. She didn't ask me who I was but instead recited a monologue. Perhaps she was reading from a teleprompter. The conversation started out normally enough until she paused and cleared her throat.
“He's dead,” she croaked.
“Who?” I asked, stupidly. She sounded foreign, Mexican most likely. Her voice was husky and smooth, pleasant to hear, despite the negative message she was relaying.
“Charles … Mr. Rodriguez. In New Mexico,” she said.
I put down the phone and went to find my father. It would have been easier to tell my mother first, but she was out. He was in the garage fiddling with something, as fathers do. It was Sunday. We never went to church with my mother, who rarely went anyway. I hadn't been since I was 13, before my grandmother passed away. I was 18 now.
He ran inside and picked up the phone, panicked. I had assumed he wouldn't care, would walk in leisurely and take his time clearing his throat to speak.
After a few minutes of “What happened?” and “When is it?” “Where?” he found me in the living room, sipping a diet soda and watching television – something about ancient Greek mythology on Discovery.
“We're going to New Mexico in two days. Tell your mom when she gets home,” he said, then retreated to the garage.
The airplane ride was short from LAX to the dinky little landing pad in New Mexico, in the center of some obscure city. We hurried to the baggage claim and loaded into our rental car, a gray Honda. My parents and I were exhausted even though the flight was a mere two hours. My mother did crossword puzzles and my father slept. I finished off a book on religion, which only served to confuse me.
I'm not some radical thinker, like Buddha, who sits under a tree and finds his hope and calling. I never went to church as a child, nor did I receive a religious education from my ardent Catholic grandmother, who prayed alone in her room many hours each week, or mildly spiritual mother, who dabbled in various mantras and ideas. My father was no better. After my grandfather left, he suffered a loss of faith. Or rather he never knew it existed. He retreated into himself. My grandfather's return only reaffirmed his nonbelief. My family took no active role in my religious or spiritual growth because, I assumed, they were still working on their own.
We booked a room in a cheap motel near the church where the ceremony would be held. The drive from the airport was long and exhausting – the town was many hours and multiple truck stops away. We passed purple canyons and dead cacti, roaming birds and cracked mud. This is what my grandfather came for, I thought.
We got to the motel and had just enough time to change into our best blacks for the funeral. It was a grimy room with cockroaches lurking in the shadows. The previous occupants had left moldy junk food wrappers under the beds, items so rancid even the most callous of maids wouldn't dare to vacuum them up. After my mother finished her makeup, we loaded into the car again and drove to the church.
My grandfather lay in a casket. His lips and cheeks had been plumped by the mortician (something we had paid for two states away) and he wore a white tank top and an old, worn pair of jeans. Tattoos covered his arms, a mural of faded colors and shapes. His mourning girlfriend, a seventy-something woman who owned a local cantina, had picked out his clothing as well as the “typical” funeral decorations, according to her, though I couldn't recall ever attending a funeral with red and black streamers and skull-shaped candles floating in the holy water. She said that they had met five years before.
There were 10 people there, including the priest and two random women – his family I assumed – a large, apple-shaped wife and a gum-popping daughter. She looked no older than 16. He was Native American, and wore a feather headdress and an orange and white robe with a raccoon pelt over his shoulders. He was a voodoo Jesus of sorts, a holy totem pole. His family sat in the back, blank-stared and bored. The daughter looked up from her magazine every now and again. I thought I caught her eye once but realized she was just staring at my mother, who was sobbing and choking up, though she barely knew Charles Rodriquez. “Your sentimentality is showing,” I whispered.
After the funeral, we crowded into a dank little room in the back of the church, an adobe structure that looked as though it was built by very ancient people.
There were streamers, much like those in the church, as well as an assortment of chips and pretzels. Most of the guests headed toward the snack table before viewing the lovingly made photo collage or approaching the priest to compliment his sermon.
“So, you must be his grandson. He's told me all about you,” the girlfriend said, coming up behind me as I stared, in a trance, at the punch bowl where ice cubes floated in a mass of spotty maroon liquid. How classy, I thought.
“Yeah,” I said, quietly.
“You must have really loved him.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I barely knew him; love was out of the question. It wouldn't have surprised me to learn he had fabricated an entirely new life with a superhero-esque, Harvard-bound grandson, particularly since his former life was clearly not worth living.
“Did you like it when he took you to bookstores? He took me sometimes, pointed out his favorite novels. He read a lot. He said you liked to read similar things.”
“Of course, yeah, I read lots of books.” I would appease her. He was dead. It didn't matter.
“I miss him so much,” she said. She was the woman on the phone, the siren who convinced us to pay the mortician for a dead man's Botox, to fly out here for mediocre punch and rancid food under motel beds. Her powers of persuasion were undeniable. For a brief moment I almost thought I might miss him too, this man I didn't know.
“Did he take you to church?”
“Church. He loved to pray. He tattooed the word ‘faith' on his arm years before we started dating. He loved the church.”
Faith. Does religion teach people to abandon their families? He was a religious man. He was sure of himself. He was able to burn a chapter of his life and write another. My book on the plane ride here, and all my others stored at home, the days spent thinking about instead of attending to religion, had not given me faith in anything but the uncertain.
“Of course it was probably the name of a woman.” She laughed through watery eyes.
But she had other thoughts. She refused to believe this story. I assumed his skin rejected her name.
“He had a way of using his faith to enlighten the world around him. He had a way with people. Men like your grandfather should not die.”
I smiled and quickly left the room, passing my father, mother, the priest, and his family, the daughter still chewing gum, staring blankly ahead. I found myself in the church again, mind rushing, dizzy, upset. I felt nauseous.
I approached my grandfather's casket. The church was empty; no one was visiting him. But then again, we were at a party for a memory, not a body.
I stared at his face, smooth and plump. He was wax. I touched his cheek, his shirt, his arm. I saw the tattoo and allowed my fingers to lightly glide over the word.
He had faith. He wreaked of it. The way he dressed – his new glass eyes and greased-back hair – he was the word's physical manifestation.
“I'm going to find Faith,” I whispered in his ear.
Find Faith. She must be a woman around here. We didn't have a set plan for the night, maybe go to dinner at a local cantina. My grandfather was an enigma, something we would try to avoid addressing; my father wouldn't discuss the funeral, and my mom, after trying to console my father by describing to me the good in death and the afterlife, would retreat to her meal in silence. Nothing compelled me to stay with them that night.
I went back to the reception. People were still milling around. I stood near the door and watched my parents converse with Jez. The girl blowing bubblegum came over and stood next to me. I could tell from her bored look that her gum was losing its taste.
“Hey,” she said. She stared blankly ahead of her, as she had before. She crossed her arms, looked up at me, one sharp movement, and then looked straight ahead again.
I nodded in response. Nothing about her looks struck me as extraordinary, but her magnetism was undeniable. She had long black hair and wore a billowy peasant skirt and a simple white blouse. Stiff, gold-colored jewelry covered her arms, fingers, and neck, flowing down her chest. She looked like a gypsy.
“Let's get out of here,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I'm bored as hell. Mr. Priester Keester does this at least once a week. Let's go to the cantina.”
“You know … bar. It's owned by Jez. Good vodka, good music.”
“Come on!” she grabbed my arm and gave me only a brief second to gesture to my parents on the way out.
“Oh, all right, dear!” My mom waved, restraining her poised tears (I had to give her props). I'm sure she thought this was my way of coping. She probably thought cantina meant playground.
The girl ran to get money from the priest, who handed her a few dollar bills. She snarled at his lack of generosity, turned toward the door, and we were off. I still didn't know her name, but that didn't seem to faze her. Maybe she knew something about Faith; it was a small town.
The sun was slowly setting before us. Dusk already. My grandfather should be underground by now – funny to think of him still resting in the church, casket wide open, facing emptiness. No man, dead or alive, enjoys attending a funeral alone.
“So … have you lived here all your life?” I asked.
“Do you know anyone named Faith?”
“Faith Gonzalez? Ricardo? Smith?”
“How old are they, if you don't mind me asking?”
“Why should I care, I ain't them. Let's see … oh, look – here we are. Such a shame,” she said. I followed her inside.
The cantina was loud and obnoxious. Music blared from a jukebox and large men and women buzzed, danced around the entrance, loosely grasping wine and beer glasses. They laughed and circled each other, the women moving their skirts and tapping to some Mexican anthem.
She grabbed my hand as we entered and led me to the bar where a mix of white, Hispanic, and Indian men sat chit-chatting or staring straight ahead solemnly. Some smoked; some coughed into handkerchiefs between guzzles of beer. I didn't see many women at the bar, except for those working behind it, guarding the alcohol from depressed or intoxicated hands.
The cantina was old-fashioned, traditional. The walls were red adobe, and lace curtains hung in the windows. Kegs of beer and bottles of tequila filled the shelves. It was quaint and homey but disheveled; its desolation and grotesqueness were mirrored by its inhabitants. A few men whistled at the girl and she smiled coyly in response, batting her eyelashes. She ate up the attention, fleetingly meeting their glances.
“Do you do this often?” I asked.
“Maybe.” She looked at me in mock flirtation.
“Who is the oldest Faith you know?”
“I'm on a search. Answer my question.”
“She's 80 … or she was. She died a few months ago. Why are you so weird, huh?”
“I'm not weird.” Just confused.
“What'll it be?” A bartender approached us.
“A martini, please. No olive. No stick,” the girl replied.
“Eh, er … a Coke?”
The woman gave me a puzzled look. She seemed ready to say something, but refrained. She could probably tell I wasn't 21, but she didn't seem to care; she clearly wasn't penalizing my bar buddy. She didn't love her job, but then she didn't seem to loathe it either. She found something righteous in the work, something familiar. I imagined she found contentment and modest pleasure in the simple events of her customers' lives, as well as her own. She gave us a quick nod and turned to get our drinks.
“Sure thing, dolls,” she winked.
The bar was noisy and crowded. It was getting dark outside. Glasses clinked and rowdy men roared.
“Yeah, she died. Why?”
“My grandfather left us for a woman named Faith.”
This made her laugh. Her head rolled back and her hair fell over her shoulders in one continuous wave. A few men around us stared at her, and one licked beer off of his lips, rubbed his graying, whiskery chin. Another smirked and then took a long swig of his drink.
“Faith Smith. I'm sorry. No, really, I'm sorry. But your trials ain't the pits of the world. My daddy left us two years ago to gamble his fortunes away.”
“Isn't your father Priester Keester?”
“No, he's my uncle. We help him out at the funerals for pay. Someday I'm gonna be famous though. Won't do nothing but what I want.”
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen and growing!” she smiled. “The world is my pearl, and someday my gum will taste like champagne.”
“My father pops pills on an hourly basis.”
“So what? My mother is fat as a whale. Can barely clean herself. We're all here together, hon.”
I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I wasn't in the mood for Coke. The girl waved me away, and a man with a toothpick between his lips approached and sat in my seat. She didn't look back for help.
I opened the bathroom door. It was small but not quaint like the bar. Two middle-aged truckers grunted and zipped up their flies, and the one closest to the door shot me a quick glance.
Faith. The men left. A Hispanic woman entered, unmindful of my presence, and started cleaning. I assumed she was a janitor.
Faith. She dragged in a yellow bin and wet mop, dipped it in the water.
The word was carved in the wall above my urinal. The woman passed to enter a stall, her wet mop splattering soapy liquid on the back of my dress pants.
Faith. What sort of a man was my grandfather? Did he go to cantinas like this? I can imagine he met Jez here, wooed her, and then the aging couple rode his chopper into the sunset. Did he get this tattoo after taking a piss here so many years before?
There was no way of knowing, of course, if my grandfather did these things. Instead of some string of obscenities or Call Me, it said Faith. Faith in what? A religion or philosophy? A family or woman? There was no way of knowing. My books had not told me what to write on bathroom walls.
Faith looked at me, lured me into a gaze. I was not staring blankly at a casket but rather a dream, a possibility. It is impossible to unlock the secrets and past lives of mankind; if everyone knew this, philosophers would need day jobs.
I returned to the bar and spotted the girl sipping her martini with the burly, lonely men who craved her company in their dismal lives. She seemed 20, even 60, the way she carried herself and knew the world.
I decided not to disrupt her any more than I already had, so I left the cantina and went back to the church, the muted dusk light falling behind me.
My parents were standing outside the church with Jez. She seemed almost blissful, but morose and longing all the same. My mother was no longer sobbing but held my father's hand, a tender smile gracing her face. My father was unchanged. It was obvious the dead dog had sealed the deal long ago. The church hadn't given him religion. Faith wouldn't either.
They saw me, motioned to indicate our imminent departure, and we walked to the car in silence. Jez followed as a sort of good-bye gesture.
I got in the back seat. Jez turned back to the church, but I rolled down my window and reached out to touch her shoulder. She turned.
“I found her,” I said.
“Found who?” she asked.
“Where is she?” Her eyes were wide and hopeful, open to any way to connect with his memory.
“Over your second urinal.”
My father started the car and backed out of the parking lot, our Honda's wheels crackling on the dry asphalt. The night was at its darkest hour, but it felt like dawn.
I turned to see her face through the rear window, bewildered, searching. Faith was here; my grandfather had found it, created it.
We didn't have dinner. No one was hungry. My father fell asleep quickly and my mother did her crossword puzzles for a while before turning off her light. I opened the nightstand drawer next to my bed, found a box of matches, and grabbed my book.
I went outside, into the parking lot, and lit a match. I threw the book on the ground and watched my suspicions go up in flames.