New Mexico Noir: Shadows of the Past

My family had a long history with the church. I had a long history of falling asleep in the church. New Mexico mission churches are thick-walled and shadowy. Plus, the only variation in the liturgy occurs when the priest chooses matins instead of service one in the hymnal.

Father Garcia was an old man when I was a child, even older now that I was an adult, and he respected the largely elderly congregation by not forcing us to stand too frequently during the service. Taking all of that into account, I wondered why the entire crowd didn’t knock their heads back against the pews in slumber.

Angelica elbowed me. I started awake.

She whispered in my ear, “I can’t believe you dragged me here, and you’re the one falling asleep.”

I straightened my back and trained my eyes on the statues, which were set up in an alcove at the front. Windows had been cut into this alcove, such that beams of morning light fell from either side on the bowed angels. I’d always wondered why they’d chosen to place a statue of St. Felipe at the highest point, above the altar, rather than a symbol or statue of Christ.

San Felipe de Neri was not the duskiest Catholic mission in New Mexico. For a start, they had painted the walls white, and had hung cylindrical lamps from the high ceiling that cast a rosy glow. Despite that, it was just shadowy enough to emphasize the bright beams of sun at the front, and to create a hushed atmosphere.

It was in this peculiar, church hush that I felt as if my family were there with me in the service. We had always attended church together, all four of us. As an adult, I had not desisted from regular masses because of disillusionment over my belief in God, but disillusionment over the unity of my family, who no longer worshiped here.

Yesterday, my brother had insisted he knew as well as I did the whereabouts of our parents, which meant that he had no idea. When his words brought me to tears, he reluctantly hugged me.

“And Anthony?” I asked. Earlier, I’d asked him directly what he knew of Anthony Carrillo, and he had skirted the subject, drifting to the current one that involved the sudden loss—or disappearance, rather—of our parents. His embrace was not unwelcome, even though he was as hot and sweaty as I was. I laid my head on his shoulder and felt the kinship flow between us. We were both orphans of a sort.

“Anthony Carrillo?” He pushed me away from him, yet held me by the shoulders at arm’s length. “Anthony was in a different class from me. He’s your age. I didn’t know him all that well.”

“What do you know about him now?”

“Obviously, only that he’s still in love with you.”

“If you recall, Bro, Anthony and I just met. How could he be in love with me?”

“Back in high school, he was in love with his idea of you. Mom sent me family photos every year, and he fell in love with your image on film. I told him you weren’t as good to look at in person, but he wouldn’t listen to me.”

I couldn’t help smiling at this news. “But what does that have to do with now? Should I be worried working for him?”

“No. Why should you be? He’s as good as gold. I promise. But I wouldn’t go back to your apartment if I were you. Stay with Angelica, or with me if you have to. You can watch Caitlyn when I’m at work.”

After Matthew’s divorce, he and his ex-wife split their four-year-old in half—not literally, of course, even if it felt that way to Caitlyn. “How come you never told me you needed help?”

“Because, up to now, you worked nights and slept during the day. She’s been staying with Granny Helen, who can’t really keep up with her.”

Granny Helen also happened to be Grandma Steadman, the woman I wanted to speak with at church. She was our adopted grandma, the woman who cared for my brother and I after school and made us pinwheel macaroni and cheese, a soupy dish that involved more milk than cheese, and a hint of tomato sauce. Thinking about her pinwheels brought tears to my eyes.

Where was she, anyway? The pastor’s sermon was winding down, and he was exhorting us to carry the light of the gospel to a dark world once we’d left the church that day. In New Mexico, however, this particular exhortation always struck me with the certain irony that I would be assailed by the brighter light of the sun outside the church.

After the pastoral blessing, I rose and scanned those crazy enough to attend early mass on a Sunday morning. It was not a large gathering. I could see that Grandma Steadman was not in attendance.

“Why did we get up so early?” Angelica asked.

“So we could go to church and then go over to Grandma Steadman’s house to see why she’s not here.”

“I guess the blessing in all this is that I got to attend a mass without my ADD sons for once.”

We emerged into the gentleness of the August morning, walked through the grounds, and out onto the plaza. Old Town was empty, except for the other martyrs of the faith who were leaving church before most people had risen from bed. The shops and restaurants were closed, the sidewalks empty, the trees still sleeping and casting dappled, morning light over the grass.

Angelica sighed and slipped her sunglasses over her eyes. “I think we should take a nap in the grass,” she said.

It did sound like a delicious idea. We could rest peacefully and then walk over to Little Anita’s for breakfast enchiladas or carne adovada and eggs. But, no, we had business to attend to. We needed to find Grandma Steadman.

Angelica drove us down Rio Grande a few blocks, then turned left to find my childhood neighborhood. Grandma Steadman’s house was three doors down from parents’ old house. Her stucco was cracked and dirty, her yard weedy, and her flower garden unkempt. The sight of it made me sad, because I remembered her flower garden as the best on the street, a riot of seasonal flowers, including a mass of variegated tulips in the spring. Now, wild desert marigolds grew in unwieldy clumps, alongside heavily drooping hollyhocks.

Her windows were dark, her porch cool from lack of sun. Spider webs hung thickly in the corners and under eaves.

“Should we knock?” I asked.

Angelica nodded. I knocked, very softly at first. With each knock, I pounded a little harder. Then we stood and waited, listening to the heavy silence that answered us.

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