Luzanne gathered her son’s dirty clothes just like she used to do years ago when he was still in school, still at home, still safe and sound, still a young boy with his mother to watch over him and protect him. She fought back tears as she thought of then and now, and how things had changed.
Luzanne pulled her pajamas out of her suitcase and put them in the bathroom for Paul to put on when he got out of the shower. He had no other clothes than the filthy ones she dropped in a pile in the hall outside her room.
The hotel phone connected only to the front desk and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. She got lucky.
“Por favor, lavar. E necessito lavaro dirty clothes. Immediately. Gracias.”
Luzanne had no idea if the desk clerk understood or not.
Within minutes there was a knock on the door.
“That was fast,” she said aloud as she opened the door.
A teenage girl clutching a Chihuahua stood there next to the pile of clothes.
“Aquí,” Luzanne said, pointing at them.
Jessamina looked with worry at the laundry and then at Luzanne. “Con permiso, señora. Señor Philemon? Aquí? You see him?”
Luzanne realized it was the girl with the dog she saw follow Philemon up the stairs hours before. “No, no aquí.” I did see him earlier.”
Luzanne thought she better watch what she says and to whom. “Who are you? Cómo se llama?”
“Jessamina,” the girl smiled. “Philemon es mi amigo especiale. We together mucho años.
“I see,” mumbled Luzanne.
Dirty old man, messing with underage girls. How disgusting is that? He should be ashamed. Is that what brings him to Marsella? Maybe he’s into slave trade. Or prostitution.
“You want I take wash?” Jessamina smiled again. “I do good. I do good for Philemon.”
“I just bet you do,” Luzanne muttered.
“Nothing. Nada. Si, por favor. Go wash. Yes. Thank you. Gracias.”
Jessamina smothered the dog with the pile of clothes and hurried down the hall.
Luzanne shut the door and locked it and then called back down to the desk and told them in her broken Spanish to forget it.
“Mother?” Paul said from across the room.
Luzanne couldn’t keep from laughing at her son wearing her pajamas. The bottoms were nearly falling off his gaunt frame and the top hung on him like an oversized overcoat.
“Here, I think I have a belt in my suitcase you can use to keep those pants on.”
“Who was at the door?”
“A girl named Jessamina. Says Philemon is her special friend. I just bet he is.”
“It’s not what you think,” Paul said.
“No. Steed has supported that girl for years and lets everybody think she belongs to him so no other man, or boy, will mess with her. She adores him and has a major crush on him but she’s like a daughter or little sister to him.”
“I see,” Luzanne sighed with relief.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Paul continued. “He’s no saint. But one thing he doesn’t do is take advantage of young girls or naïve women. He only tangles with those who have as much experience as he does.”
Luzanne sat in the upholstered chair by the window that looked out over the small zócalo.
She caught a glimpse of Jessamina with her arms full of Paul’s clothes as she turned the corner and disappeared.
Luzanne kicked of her shoes and put her feet up on the accompanying footstool.
“Look how swollen my feet are.”
Paul looked at her feet and then at her. “So when are you going to tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“How you and Philemon Steed know each other.”
“After you tell me what’s going on here.”
Paul sat in the other chair away from the window. His lips trembled as he stared at his hands.
“Paul? Honey? It’s okay. I’m your mother. And I’m here. Nothing you can ever do will stop me from loving you. You’re my son. It’s okay now. Everything will be alright, you’ll see.”
“Will it, Mother?” he snapped back. “How can you say that? You don’t know what it’s like out there. Life is cheap. There is no God.”
“Paul Joseph Brazil!” cried Luzanne. “You don’t mean that.”
Paul’s eyes filled with tears. “I killed him. I killed God. I did the unspeakable. I weakened.”
“Honey, we all weaken. We all struggle with ourselves. God forgives if you ask for it.”
“But I’m a priest. I’m supposed to be different. I’m supposed to be stronger and able to rise above it all.” He shoved the tears off his face as fast as they fell.
Luzanne held her tongue and looked out the window until Paul regained his composure.
“Honey, you took the high road when you took your vows. You also took the hard road. You have a lot to live up to but you are still human. And we all make mistakes.”
Luzanne thought back to the childhood bed where she and Philemon Steed played with each other so many happy afternoons.
Paul took a deep breath as though he were about to drop from a high cliff into a bottomless pool of shark-infested water. Would he sink or swim?
“Mother, I killed someone,” he blurted.
Luzanne didn’t move, waiting.
“But not just anyone. I killed Freddy Ramirez.” Paul stared off into space as he spoke. “He came here from Argentina. Half German, half Spanish. He had very light hair and skin and really dark brown eyes. Everyone adored him. Kids. Women.” Paul paused. “And men.”
Paul swallowed hard. “I fell in love with him, Mother.”
Luzanne saw her son flinch and her heart broke knowing he was in so much emotional agony. He had always been sensitive and gentle. So quiet and kind. Too gentle for the men in the Brazil family. Too quiet. Too soft-spoken. Joe constantly lost his temper with Paul who could never seem to do a man’s work whether it be milking cows or farming or building a barn or setting a new pump in the well. Useless. To Joe, his son as a man was useless. And he took this as a personal failure. Joe and Luzanne each secretly breathed with relief when Paul decided to be a priest. She stared out the window, wishing she was hearing something else.
“I tried not to,” Paul said. “I avoided him. I was even sometimes rude or curt with him so he would stay away.”
“But he wouldn’t stay away,” Paul continued. “He stayed. And he loved tormenting me that way. Freddy knew I’d fallen for him. He was used to people being in love with him. But I was a priest. And he thought that was amusing.”
Paul stood up and started pacing the floor. “Are you shocked?”
Luzanne slowly shook her head.
“I couldn’t think of God any more. All I could think of was Freddy. The morning prayer. Freddy. Tilling the fields. Freddy. Visiting the poor. Freddy. Administering the last rites. Freddy. Evening worship. Freddy. God was dead to me. My flesh literally burned with desire to the point I would vomit. I constantly ran a fever, and had aches and chills, and my stomach was in knots. I tried praying to God to stop all this, relieve me, save me, but all I could hear, see, think, and feel anything for was Freddy.”
Luzanne knew that burning desire once herself. She padded over to the bureau in her bare feet, still slightly swollen. An unopened bottle of scotch and two glasses sat on a small tray, courtesy of the hotel. Or so guests thought until check-out when they would be charged for however much had been depleted. She unscrewed the cap, poured each glass half full, and handed one to Paul.
“Mother! You don’t drink!”
“Funny, that’s what your father said to me before I left.” She tapped her glass lightly against his. “Like I told him…I do now. Cheers.”
They both sat back down and gratefully sipped the liquor.
“I never touched him,” Paul said, breaking the silence. “For what it’s worth.”
“That’s worth a lot, son.”
“He pleaded and cried and teased me and tried every trick in the book to seduce me but I resisted.”
“See, Paul. You are strong. You are faithful to God. And God was by your side.”
“No!” Paul suddenly shouted.
“Shhh, shhh. Keep your voice down. We don’t want anyone to know you are here.”
“Sorry. I’m so sorry you had to come all the way down here. I’m so sorry, Mother, for dragging you into this.”
“Enough of that. You know I don’t believe in guilt, Catholic or not. Remorse, yes. But guilt is sin. S-I-N. Self-Inflicted Nonsense. It doesn’t serve anyone. That’s sin.”
Paul nodded his head. “Oh, I’m remorseful. No doubt about it. My constant refusals hurt Freddy’s pride, I think. And he began to get ugly. Now I was nothing more than a challenge for him. A challenge to bring me down off my self-righteous pillar, as he put it. He started telling people we were lovers. That I had seduced him and swore I’d kill him if he ever told.”
“I didn’t know what to do. I prayed. Nothing. I fasted. I thrashed myself with the thorny branches from rose bushes. Nothing. I confessed my feelings to Señor Bravista.”
“Señor Bravista?” Luzanne nearly choked.
“Yes. He is my superior here. Well, part-time sort of. Everybody else has been murdered, kidnapped, or fled the country.”
“I can’t believe you’ve been in such a dangerous place for all this time.”
“No more dangerous than what’s inside each of us, Mother.”
“Now see, that’s spoken by a real priest, a real man of faith. You are right. We each have our own demons.” Luzanne thought of Philemon.
“Señor Bravista is an itinerant priest who travels to remote towns like Marsella to oversee those of us in residence. Or so I’m told.”
Luzanne finished her drink. Something didn’t sit well with her but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was.
“Here, refresh my drink,” she commanded, thrusting her glass at Paul.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
“Excuse me? I’ve flown five thousand miles to a country that tourists are afraid to visit in search of my oldest son, a priest, who now tells me he is a homosexual and possibly a murderer. And he’s admonishing me for drinking too much? Ha! What irony! And I’m missing I don’t know how many days of work at the bank which translates into income which is how you got to be a priest in the first place because every single one of my paychecks went into the cookie jar to pay for you while we scraped to get by on money your father earned from the cows and ranching. Now I am here and your father is left to fend for himself with Marianne and Jack. Remember them? Your younger sister and brother? Thank God Helen is a mother hen and checks on them to make sure they have food for supper, that the laundry gets done, and the kids have something for breakfast. Marianne and Jack think you walk on water while you never send them a letter or even a postcard or anything as though they mean nothing to you.”
Paul started to speak and Luzanne raised her voice.
“Well, let me tell you something, Mr. High and Mighty Priest, you have a family back home who loves you and thinks of you every day and worries about you and mentions you in our daily prayers not only at the dinner table but before we go to sleep and every Sunday at Mass. So pour me some more Scotch and quit talking back to your mother!”
Paul did as he was told. And poured himself another as well. They both knew Jessamina would soon return with the laundry or Philemon would return to his room. Or both.
“Hurry, son. Tell me what happened.”
Paul swallowed hard. “Freddy Ramirez hung himself from a water tower in town. There was a note pinned to his shirt that said ‘Adios, Padre Paul. See you in Hell, amigo.’”
“Oh no, Paul.”
“Señor Bravista found the body and he showed me the note. I panicked. That’s when I wrote you. And I’ve been hiding pretty much ever since.”
“So you didn’t murder him?”
“No, Mother! Of course not! But I caused it. I think he killed himself. And it’s because of me. So I might as well have murdered him. And my name is now attached to it. To him.” Paul paused.
Luzanne stared hard at her son.
“It’s so horrible,” he continued. “I can’t stand it. And on top of it, I loved him. Mother, I am so ashamed. So very much ashamed.”
Paul fell to the floor at his mother’s feet and sobbed.
Luzanne patted his head while steadily sipping her Scotch. The liquor seemed to make things clearer and clearer.
Marsella is a terraced town
On the Cuaca River.
No (she says)
I am a painter’s pear
Still-lifed in dark shadow
No fuller than any afternoon.
What is certain is the turning
And the turning will be done.
Behind these curtains of flesh and skin
Meat goes from green to white to black.
Feeding on the ripe is the key to it all.
Or when the one red rose
(That one red rose
Picked and placed by the bedside)
Bows with bloom and drips its dew
Graceful as a prayer by the bedside.
Luzanne dozed, dreaming of the tap-tap sound of fog so thick it dripped like rain.
She started. Someone was at the door. Paul lay crumbled at her feet, asleep or passed out.
Luzanne tiptoed to the door and opened it a crack.
Jessamina stood there smiling with Paul’s clean clothes in her arms.
“Gracias, Señorita,” Luzanne whispered.
Jessamina started to come in and Luzanne quickly took the clothes from her and closed the door. She set the pile on the bed and pulled her wallet from her purse.
Jessamina still stood there when Luzanne opened the door again. She handed the girl an American, U.S. currency, five-dollar bill.
“Señora!” the girl gasped.
“Okay, thank you. You go now. Go on. Go! Gracias,” Luzanne said and closed the door.
A minute later there was a tap-tap again on the door. Luzanne wanted Paul to sleep. Was this girl going to now bother her thinking she was a rich American? She opened the door, prepared to tell her andale! And there stood Philemon Steed.
“Hello,” he said slowly.
“Hello.” Luzanne looked around. He was alone and no one else was in the hall.
“I thought it was that girl again.”
“I just paid Refugio to take her off my hands for awhile.”
“You don’t mean…”
“Oh no, not that. He’ll get her some supper and take her to the bar where the big screen
TV is, and then later to his abuela’s house where she can safely sleep all night and bathe in the morning and be with other girls her age.”
“How’s the padre?”
“Passed out, I think. Come in. Maybe you can help me get him on the bed.”
Philemon obliged and easily lifted Paul up and onto the bed. Luzanne covered him with the bedspread and smoothed the hair away from his forehead. The young man moaned once but otherwise was totally out.
Philemon noticed the bottle of scotch was half full.
“Let him rest,” he said. “Come next door with me. We don’t have much time.” “We don’t?” Luzanne, realizing she was barefoot, went for her shoes.
“It’s getting late. I’ll send for some food.”
Luzanne picked up the bottle of scotch and the key to the room and followed Philemon out the door, locking it behind her.
His room was identical to theirs except it was a corner room and had two windows overlooking the zocalo.
He closed and locked the door. “Make yourself at home.”
While he called the front desk, Luzanne glanced around. She noticed immediately there was no luggage. No clothes. No nothing. Just a small briefcase. And a bottle of tequila, a few limes, a small box of salt, and, propped up against the bureau mirror, a faded postcard of the Virgin Mary statue in an old church somewhere.
“Si, por favor. Bandeja Paisa. Arroz. Arepas con queso. Patacones. Aguacates. Pronto! Gracias!”
Luzanne realized she was starving.
“Tequila?” he offered. “Or do you want to stick with scotch?”
“I’ll try tequila,” Luzanne declared. “I’ve never had it before.”
Philemon poured two shot glasses, cut up a lime into eight pieces, dumped a pile of salt on the tray, and set it on the small table between the two upholstered chairs.
“Salud!” he said, taking a gulp, then licking the spot on his hand between thumb and forefinger, sprinkling salt to stick on the wet spot, then licking it off and sucking a piece of lime.
Luzanne watched, wide-eyed, as though they were both teenagers again experimenting with something new…again.
She followed his lead, making quite a face when the tequila burned its way down her throat.
Philemon laughed. “Not a drinker, are you?”
“I am now,” she cried, thinking of Joe Brazil’s disapproving look when she drank the brandy at home.
“Lick the salt quickly and suck on the lime as soon as you can. That will help. There are tequilas that are so smooth and fine you don’t need salt or lime. But in this shithole place do you think I could find any? Hell no. Pardon my French.”
They each had a second gulp and looked at one another.
“This is bizarre,” Philemon said.
“Surreal,” she replied.
“Who would have ever guessed?”
“I still can’t believe it.”
“It’s not possible.”
“Time knows no boundaries, they say.”
“I mean…what are the chances of you and me…?”
“I know. Here I am a middle-aged woman with four children married to a Portuguese dairy farmer in Northern California. I haven’t left the county much less the country since I got married.”
“And I’ve done nothing it seems but leave. And when I come back, I’m still alone.”
“And now here we are.”
“Here. Of all places,” Philemon said.
“I never forgot you.”
“No,” Luzanne shook her head.
“Well, you should have. I forgot all about you. Until just recently. Before I came back here to Marsella. All of a sudden, I remembered you. Us. Those afternoons at your house. It came to me in a dream. Or like a dream. It was so real.”
“Remember?” he asked.
“Oh my goodness, yes. How could I forget?” She thought of Helen.
In unison they each took another gulp of tequila with salt and lime.
“Well, I hope it’s been good memories for you. It certainly has for me,” Philemon said.
Luzanne slowly nodded.
“I gotta say, Luzanne. You turned out to be one handsome woman.”
Luzanne felt herself blush clear down to her exposed fat toes. It all came rushing back to her. His body and hers. The freshness. The innocence. The feeling. What was that feeling exactly? Love? Freedom? It certainly wasn’t anything she had ever felt for Joe Brazil. The man she loved and married and had four children—wait, that’s not true—three children with. No. Not the same feeling. And now it wasn’t just rushing back to her, it was flooding over her, engulfing her, sweeping her out beyond the rocky shore, beyond the waves. She wanted to tell him. Right then. About Helen. That’s why her family up and moved. She was pregnant. So awful. Such a scandal. So nasty and dirty and sinful and awful. But she never felt that way. And then came the baby. To remind her every single day of him. She wanted him to know he had a daughter. That he’d given part of himself to her. But first she wanted to be obliterated by that feeling again. By him. Again. And again.
Luzanne stood up and began undressing.
“What are you doing?” Philemon asked.
“What does it look like?”
“You’re drunk. Don’t do this. Don’t do something you’ll regret later.”
“I’ve only regretted one thing in my life, Philemon. And that was not running away with you when I could have.”
“But you don’t know who I am.”
“I don’t care. Kiss me.”
“Luzanne, I’m an assassin. A tired, washed-up, old killer for hire.”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
“Your folks were right about me.”
“No, they weren’t. I know who you really are. I’ve always known.”
She threw her arms around his neck.
He lifted her to the bed, kissing her very slowly. She tried undressing him as she returned his kiss. He fell on top of her and she laughed. He buried his face in her hair and inhaled the scent on the back of her neck. The years started to dissolve as they kissed harder and longer.
“Señor?” A voice said from the hallway. “La comida esta aquí.”
Philemon jumped up, grabbed some money, cracked open the door and shoved it at the boy delivering their meal.
“Gracias, Señor!” the boy yelled as he raced back downstairs.
Quickly Philemon brought the tray of food inside and locked the door. He went into the bathroom and washed his face and hands. When he came back out, Luzanne had fallen asleep on her side.
Philemon sat down on the bed beside her, admiring her natural beauty and womanly figure. He ran his fingers lightly along her hair that didn’t quite reach her shoulder, and followed along her shoulder and bare arm, lightly touching her hand that rested on her wide hip, a hand with one plain gold wedding band on the third finger, and back up along her hip he went where he nearly choked with desire, and he touched her thigh, and ran his hand down along her leg to her bare toes. She never made a sound.
So much for holding one’s liquor. Like son, like mother. Or like mother, like son, he thought. Philemon pulled the bedspread up around Luzanne. He ate quickly.
No time to waste. Using Luzanne’s key, he took some of the food next door for Paul who was now snoring. Philemon left him a note:
Don’t leave or let anybody in except Jessamina. — PS
He locked the door and hurried back to his room where Luzanne slept as soundly as her son. He left her key and the same note for her near the rest of the food on the tray.
Philemon took his briefcase, put the old postcard inside, and quietly locked the door behind him.
To be continued….