PHILEMON STEED #9

Lizard in the Shade

 

***

Luzanne Sistrunk Brazil sat on the edge of the bed in her hotel room. Two hot and swollen feet begged her to kick off the tight shoes. She went barefoot to the window. A weary but charming town looked back at her. Sheets flapping on clotheslines decorated the terraced town like enormous white flags eager for a truce. Flowering vines went wild in the sun. She looked down. Directly below her window, a black dog slept in the hot shade. Lizards navigated the high white wall that enclosed the hotel courtyard.

Across from the hotel and far up the hill, Luzanne could see a woman standing on her terrace. Just standing and gazing out over the town. Something about this woman captivated her. The woman wasn’t looking at anything in particular. Maybe she was daydreaming. No. Her position at the railing was more alert than someone lost in thought. The woman stood completely still as if trying to hear something.

An urgent knock rattled the door. Luzanne jumped.

“Who is it?” she called.

Señora Brazil?” A man asked in a high squeaky voice.

Luzanne fiddled with her blouse, making sure it was properly buttoned. She opened the

door.

“Yes?”

***

That look ahead is winding down

Slowly

As what she thought was faith

She finds is hope.

 

Last night she heard a lizard scream—

No bigger than a minute-hand

Caught in a web of dust.

Only she could set it free.

She did what she had to do.

 

Today, now, this very hour

Devours her

And the hour before it

And the hour before that hour.

 

It is a situation beyond

Faith or hope—

Beyond boundaries

Of any kind.

 

She knows.

She sees it now:

Out there

In the sun on a rock,

Eyes closed.

***

Paul did not touch her.

Paul did not move.

Littorella bit and licked and plied her trade.

But Paul the Priest did not move.

She left without a word.

Then Paul pulled himself out of the fetal position he had held onto for the past several hours and listened.

Littorella let the screen door slam behind her as she headed toward the zocalo.

Ching-ching! Ching-ching-ching!

Ching-ching! Ching-ching-ching!

The ice cream man pushed his cart past the house, ringing the bicycle bell attached to one side.

La Dulce! Mira mira! Helado aqui!”

And then a woman walked past with a basket on her head.

Tortillas! Calido! Tortillas!” she sang out.

Paul’s stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

“You don’t deserve to eat,” said the voice in his head.

“You’re no priest. You’re no child of God. You’re a killer,” the voice harped on.

Paul listened again.

Only street sounds. No stirring of angel’s wings. No beatific breath up his nostrils. No flapping of the archangel come to rescue him. No such luck.

“You’ve done it this time, Holy Boy,” said the voice. “You’re in a world of hurt.”

Paul put his hands over his ears and screamed. “SHUT UP! SILENCIO!

A skin-and-bones dog resting outside in the shade below his window scurried off as fast as its bony body allowed.

Paul watched the dog get a block away and plop down again. He saw the baby without diapers playing in the dirt. He saw the woman, toothless and old, listening to the ticking watch on her withered wrist. He saw the women carrying trays on their heads with pan dulce for sale and frutas for sale and sticky red hot candies for sale. He saw several men leaning against the white stucco wall drinking cerveza and passing around a bottle of tequila. He watched the young girls pass with piles of laundry on their heads and no shoes on their dusty feet. He saw two nuns in all white drifting through the crowd, looking around. He watched and listened and waited until they disappeared.

Paul sat on the bed and put on his leather sandals. He slipped the soiled brown cassock over his dirty white shirt and dirty brown trousers. He took the dirty brown rope off a hook in the wall next to the picture of Jesus and tied it around his waist.

Littorella had pleaded with him to use it to tie her up but he refused. She didn’t know he chewed a hole in the pillowcase to keep from saying yes.

Yes, oh yes. Si, señora. YES. Madre de Dios. May the blessed heart of Jesus be adored, glorified, loved, and preserved now and forever. Sacred heart of Jesus pray for us. Saint Jude, worker of miracles, pray for us.

Paul tightened the rope around his waist and was about to leave when someone knocked on the door.

Que?” he asked, glancing out the window. Below was an old Volkswagen beetle idling.

Paul opened the door.

Refugio shoved a note into his hand.

“Refugio! Come esta?”

Muy bien, Father. I guess.”

“Don’t call me Father,” Paul said softly. “And what do you mean, you guess?”

Refugio pointed at the note.

Paul read it aloud:

“Come to Rio Vista Hotel. PRONTO. Signed Señor Bravista.”

 

***

Tired and dusty, Philemon returned to the hotel to clean up. Jessamina followed behind him like a loyal dog that was carrying another dog. She would not let go of the Chihuahua.

He glanced across the lobby with its brown tile floors, white plastered columns, and wooden chairs with gold brocade upholstery.

Seated by the wall-sized window, Philemon could see Señor Bravista speaking to a woman in a chair near him.

Philemon stopped. “What is that cagey old fart up to now?”

Que?” Jessamina said, almost running into the back of him.

“Over there. Señor Bravista.”

Si, it is him.”

“That woman,” he paused, trying to remember something. “That woman looks American.”

Es problemo?”

No lo se. I don’t know, kid.”

Luzanne looked past Señor Bravista to catch sight of Philemon striding towards the stairs with Jessamina running behind with the Chihuahua in her skinny arms.

She smiled for a moment, thinking it was a father with his daughter. He probably just gave her the dog as a birthday gift by the way the girl clutched it to her chest.

Luzanne watched them disappear up the stairs.

Señora?”

“Yes? Oh, I’m sorry, Father. It’s just that…that man…oh, never mind.”

“I think I see your son coming.”

Luzanne stared out the window. The modest zocalo of paved stones and tiled fountain in the center with a trickle of water running down one side was all she saw.

Mira, Señora. He is there.” The priest pointed to the left.

Luzanne saw a shrouded figure creeping in and out of the shadows of the buildings that faced the zocalo. Her heart stopped.

“Paul,” she whispered.

She watched as the figure in a brown cassock with hood, rope tied around the waist, and leather sandals on bare feet turned the corner and disappeared.

Luzanne jumped up.

Señora, please! Sit down, por favor,” urged Señor Bravista. “We must not attract attention.”

Upstairs, Philemon let the shower run in hopes of getting more than tepid water.

“Get outta here,” he commanded Jessamina.

“But Pheela-mon, I can make you so happy.”

“Stop that kinda talk.”

“But I am a woman now like Littorella. Let me show you,” Jessamina pleaded.

“You’re nothing like Littorella and don’t try to be. Now go in the other room. Pronto!”

The girl moped over to the bed and laid down with her dog.

Philemon slammed the bathroom door and surrendered to a shower with lukewarm water.

After drying off, he wrapped the towel around his waist and carefully opened the bathroom door.

Jessamina was sound asleep with the dog in her arms, also asleep. He stood beside the bed and stared at her.

“Oh, my God,” he whispered. “You’ve got breasts now. And your ass has gotten round and plump. What’s happening to my skinny little chick?”

Philemon let the towel drop to the floor. He bent over the sleeping girl. He knew he could have his way with her anytime, anywhere, anyhow. The thought of it made him sick to his stomach.

“I know my ricardo would make you happy and you’d make ricardo happy too. So young and tight and ready. Damn!”

Girls her age were either raped and sold into prostitution, or saddled with two or three or more babies before they hit eighteen. So he let Jessamina tell everyone she belonged to him. At least it kept her safe. No one had to know he never touched her. But at some point, the girl deserved a life. A lover. Maybe a real husband.

Pobrecita,” he whispered, and gently pushed the hair away from her face.

The Chihuahua growled low.

“Back to work,” Philemon muttered as he dressed. He slipped out of the room and headed downstairs.

The hooded figure entered the lobby just as Philemon came down the stairs. Both stopped and stared at each other across the room.

Luzanne Brazil and Señor Bravista stood up, watching. Luzanne could hardly keep from crying out.

Philemon and the figure moved closer to one another.

“Paul? Is that you?”

“Philemon Steed?”

“Paul! I’ll be goddamned. Come here, you son-of-a-bitch”

Philemon stretched his arms out and Paul did the same and the two men hugged like the old friends and war buddies that they were.

“What are you doing back here?”

“One last job,” grumbled Philemon.

“No, no,” Paul said, shaking his head. “I thought the killing was finally over.”

Across the lobby, Luzanne and Señor Bravista hadn’t moved, waiting.

“Who is that man?” Luzanne whispered.

“Shhhh,” Señor Bravista replied. “I tell you later.”

“How’ve you been, Padre?” Philemon asked.

“Don’t call me that,” Paul said, looking around.

“What’s going on, man?”

“I can’t talk now.” Paul glanced around the lobby and saw his superior standing with a woman.

“Oh my God!” Paul cried.

Philemon started to reach for his gun. “What is it?”

“Mother?” Paul whispered as he cross the room.

“Paul!” Luzanne finally exhaled.

The two embraced.

Philemon shook hands with Señor Bravista. “Buenos tardes, Señor. Como esta usted?”

“Ah, Señor Steed, I wish I could be happy to see you. I thought the killing was done.”

“Bravista, the killing will never be done. But I came back to finish just one.” Philemon smiled. “Just one more, Padre. And then I hope you’ll never see me in Marsella ever again.”

Señor, I am hoping and praying for everybody that what you say comes true,” Señor Bravista said. And he doesn’t even have a clue it’s him, he thought to himself. El Stupido!

Luzanne wiped the tears from her face and then from her son’s dirty, streaked cheeks. She looked at Philemon and he looked at her. Something flickered simultaneously in their minds.

“Oh, Mother. I can’t believe you are here.”

“Your father had a fit but it doesn’t matter. You are my son.”

Paul turned to Philemon. “This is my mother.”

Señora Brazil,” Señor Bravista piped in.

“Nice to meet you,” Luzanne said, extending her hand.

“I’m a friend of Paul’s,” Philemon said, gently shaking her hand.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Steed.”

“Steed?” Luzanne repeated.

The two stared at each other for a moment.

“That’s right. Philemon Steed.”

“Jesus, Joseph, and Mary,” Luzanne cried and plopped into the chair.

“Mother, are you alright?”

The rest of them sat down.

“Maybe she needs some water.”

Si, si. I go,” said Señor Bavista.

“Philemon Steed,” she repeated as if in a dream.

“Yeah, one and the same. Been that all my sorry life.”

She stared at him. “I’m Luzanne.”

“Luzanne?”

“Luzanne Sistrunk. Remember?”

“Well, I’ll be goddamned.”

Paul stared at both of them totally mystified.

Luzanne nodded. “Now my married name is Brazil.”

“Unbelievable! How long has it been? This is incredible.”

“I guess it’s been thirty years.”

“Thirty years anyway.”

“I got married right after the last time I saw you,” she said.

“Luzanne Sistrunk,” Philemon said in disbelief.

“Philemon Steed,” Luzanne repeated.

“What’s going on?” Paul demanded. “You two know each other?”

They both nodded.

“How is that possible?”

How could his perfect, virtuous, Catholic mother married forever to his stubborn, hardworking, silent father ever know a man like Philemon, a killer, a lover, and a loner. Sure, Philemon was his friend. But his mother’s friend too? How could that be?

Señor  Bravista returned with a small bottle of cold water and a concerned look on his clean-shaven face.

 

***

Love lies bleeding

Christ lies bleeding

The Cuaca River lies bleeding

While ladyfinger fireworks

Scatter the dark.

 

“We’ve been through all of this before,”

You said and said and said.

H o w   w e l l   I   k n o w.

“But I am so uneasy with those I think might outlive me.”

 

A Catherine wheel, nailed to a tree

Is spinning wild gold.

Children cut the dark with sparklers.

There is nothing to celebrate in this fetid air.

 

Uno, dos, tres…

My hair tangles in your hands, screaming.

We kneel

Stiff and suffocating

As though this grasp were our last.

 

The sky rains red over burning snakes

That worm the curb.

 

“You never listen to what I say.”

But I don’t hear.

 

I am mesmerized by this dream

Unfulfilled

Turning tragic.

 

***

Helen Brazil Matthews stirred the pot of stew for the hundredth time and threw down the wooden spoon.

“Daddy, why did you let her go?” she demanded.

“Honey, I couldn’t stop her,” Joe said in his defense.

“She’s your wife. It was your job to stop her,” Helen scowled at her father. She didn’t know he could be so weak. Men were supposed to be head of the family and the women take care of the home and children. Isn’t that what everybody taught her? Isn’t that what the Catholic school had pounded into her head?  Isn’t that what her own husband absolutely required?

“Helen, you don’t know your mother.”

“She shouldn’t have left. I know that much.”

“You don’t know her. The woman she is. The person she is, I mean. I’ve known her longer than you and I don’t know her,” he exclaimed.

Helen turned the flame off under the pot of stew.

“Nonsense, Daddy. I think she’s wrong and I’ll tell her when I talk to her. Now this ought to feed you and Marianne and Jack for two days. I put a green salad in the refrigerator. And there’s salad dressing in the refrigerator door. I’ve got to run.”

“Thanks, Honey. And you do not have to take care of us. We’ll manage. You have your own family to worry about.”

Helen put on her coat and gave her father a kiss on the cheek.

“Call me or Will if you need anything, okay?”

“Yes, dear.”

“And promise you’ll call me the moment you hear from Mom.”

“I promise.”

“I love you, Daddy.”

Joe Brazil couldn’t say it. Not just to her. To anyone. He felt it. He looked it. His eyes bulged with it. His mouth dried up with it. His heart stopped with it. His throat choked on it. He quickly wiped his forehead with his work bandana and coughed.

“Drive careful in that fog,” he managed to say as Helen went out the door.

Joe stood there for a moment in the entry hall near the tall, old wooden clock with the swinging pendulum and the somber bongs that his grandfather had brought over from Portugal.

The heavy tick-tock, tick-tock matched his pounding heart as he thought of Helen heading back home to her husband and baby, in dense fog, thinking she had life all figured out, and yet she had no idea she wasn’t his daughter.

***

            No amount of Cuacan secrets

            Can seal this leak

In my dynasty.

Once the crack has cracked,

A track of foreigners will appear.

It is most clear

A time of bowing draws near.

I will let my servants go

And draw, myself,

From the well.

Down deep, the black waters are

Ever cold and ready.

I hold steady –

And drop the bucket

Towards Hell.

 

To be continued….

Read More by Renee Walker

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