“Why are you so late?” asks Salvador from the curb. A rhetorical question, my son well knows, one with a million reasons for it, one with no real answer at all. Why, indeed? Lateness is a trait, like a thick middle or a round face. I am happy with none of it, but what can I do? God knows; I’ve tried.
“Sorry,” is my answer for today, a day with a sky too blue to ruin with excuses. It is an expansive September afternoon in the San Joaquin Valley. Yesterday’s rains have dispelled our haze and thrown open the horizon, revealing the Sierra Nevada Mountains, their dark rock and glamour of snow apparent only every now and then, a reminder of something ancient and planetary, saved from time.
Salvador slides open the minivan, tosses his trumpet case on the floor, backpack on the booster seat and carries out his loading procedure: spine to the passenger side, backwards flop on the captain’s chair, dark hair grazing the arch of door, swivel to the front. Every time, I suppress a wince.
He gives me his quiet smile, dear Sal, sways obligingly, and I kiss the soft stubble on the side of his head. Today we skip “How was school?” His answer is always the same, anyway, always a clipped “fine.”
“When do we have to be there tonight?” I ask.
“The real time?” he answers. Salvador, like our other four children, like the rest of the population in town, knows I have no sense of time and must be fitted with a different schedule, one with artificial numbers– a prosthetic schedule. I am the one always just missing bells and busses, entire days of time, in fact, lost like socks in a dryer.
“The real time.”
Salvador checks his watch (I don’t seem to be wearing one), looks to the sky, and gives me a number I write in red pen across my palm.
“Too bad we don’t have a ring,” he says, without regret in his voice. Salvador has learned not to regret– or at least to distract it with trigonometry and the trumpet. He is staring out the window at the students waiting for rides, grouped indolently on a wooden platform. Except for their Catholic school uniforms, they remind me of a congregation of birds bobbing lazily on a dock.
“Well, it’s too late for that, anyway.” Too late. “And you know we couldn’t afford it.” For his sixteenth birthday, it was either the royal blue jacket with a patch of red spelling “BAND,” or the class ring.
“I know, ” he says lightly.
“I wish you’d at least given them a rosary to bless, that wooden one,” I say. My son frowns. He’d rather just have one of the roses heaped in a basket at the altar. Most Juniors already have their May Shamrock or September Sapphire Class of 2004 rings or holy medals lined up on velvet, ready to bless tonight at the Junior Class Ring Ceremony. I know all this from my friend Carmen, who drills me on dates and deadlines. I have her son, Luke, in a picture with Sal, the photograph where a little boy with dark hair and a little boy with light hair extend their arms wide, wide, wide like planes, like gulls laughing over the blacktop’s yellow half-moons and painted boundaries. That was before– a few years before, exactly two years before– Sal started limping. Exactly three years and three months before he stopped raising his right hand in fourth grade. Four years to the October he couldn’t raise his left hand– Five, before the summer his hip– clear my head of the gliding boys. I clear my head.
“Seatbelt?” I nod to Sal. He is already buckled, no doubt, but I glance over anyway. And then I see something: Blue. Heaven’s vault blue, rainbow blue, unmarked and unmarred, round as a ring. My son is wearing it.
“Eso,” I point. Sal raises an eyebrow. He’s good at that, the only one in the family who can keep one eyebrow at rest while the other rears up like a question mark. (I know because we have all sat around the table straining foreheads.)
“That’s it, m’hijo.”
Salvador follows my gaze; then, the look of someone who has just heard a good riddle starts in his intelligent brown eyes, moves down his face. My son smiles slightly to himself, turns his neck as far as it will go, and looks right at me. I can see the silver of his retainer.
“Can they bless one more thing?” I wonder.
“Mrs. Jones might still be there. Number 73.”
I climb down from the minivan, leave Sal in the car by the platform of students, a group dwindling as parents pull up and pull away; I jog along the adobe mission buildings, the art deco Media Center, past an ivory statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the ice blue water in tiers of the Spanish fountain. I round a familiar corner and grab the knob on door number 73. Locked. I peek in a little rectangle of window. The room is darkened.
The school bell’s brutal buzz, a minute off, startles me. I know I am now late to pick up my girls: the bells from the chapel gong elegantly, three times, over an echo of the alarm that has just blasted my bones.
Why me? Me, in charge. Someone always missing things, never at the right place at the right time, even before the first dark film slapped across a light panel, long before rings started flying off my hands in waiting rooms, before anyone could ever pronounce a one in 2 million genetic curse: fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. All this happens on my watch, to someone who tells her children sitting on sofas to fasten their seatbelts when she thinks she is saying, put on your shoes! Salvador no longer can.
On my way back to the car I do not jog. I do not breathe in a medicinal scent of sage and earth released by the rains.
And I do not see the car. Salvador. In a reflex of panic, I scan the school. This is not a good part of town, and I just lost my purse to it, an old Mexican handbag distended by a camera loaded with film, worthless to the man with dirty blond hair who ducked in our garage in the morning and ordered pizza by noon to an address on this very street. He signed my full name on check number 1001: Maria Luz Quilatzli De La Torre, in girlish loops I lost long ago. And he must have managed to look like the picture on my California Driver’s License, where I am much better than in real life: a smooth-faced Latina with a vague hairdo and an innocent smile. The only thing I’ve had time to replace is the camera.
There! There it is, cobalt blue in the emptying senior parking lot across the street; I see Salvador’s profile, stiff distinction of a Spanish doubloon or holy medal, framed in the car window. He is talking to someone, a guy in a leather jacket with a motorcycle helmet under an arm.
As I approach the car, I see that Salvador’s attention is on Father Manuel, a bearded bear of a man with eyes the color of eucalyptus, a priest for whom (I’ve heard) parishes give standing ovations. I know Father Manuel from high school, this high school, when he was Manny, one of those Mickey-Mouse-track kids who lit cigarettes with cigarettes in cars that scraped the road with their bumpers. Now he’s chaplain and assistant band director. And he’s looking like a Hell’s Angel– again.
Father Manuel, Manny, makes a show of creaking a leather sleeve and checking his wrist. “I’m so late hasta la Señora De La Torre beat me,” he says, with an accomplice’s grin. “Hey, girl, I moved you out of the red zone.”
Salvador has the same accomplice grin, like he and this priest, together, have just solved a riddle or shared a joke I missed. This annoys me, though I know it shouldn’t.
“You have something else to bless,” I say evenly.
Father Manuel extends his large paw of a hand, opened toward the sky and the prehistoric palms in their thatched jackets, looming.
“Mom! I can’t find my other sock!” The refrain starts to filter in, override my online fixation. Even though I sometimes just delete, the same way I hid the first FOP Guide for Families in an underwear drawer, its booklet cover a perfect blue butterfly painted by a young man with permanently crossed arms. “Mom, WHERE IS MY–” I block out Sofia for just one more moment: my heart is riding the incandescent letters from a mother in France:
Severine was misdiagnosed until the age of 13 years and her first bone formation was at the age of nine years so she was able to go to dancing class, swimming lessons, ski, horse, golf, sailing.
“Ask Saint Anthony to find it,” says Gabriela from very far away, farther than Paris. “Saint Anthony, please find Sofia’s sock. Thank you.” At five, Gabriela doesn’t know yet that in our modest home, where we have tossed salads of shoes and clothes in every room, her sister has as good a chance of digging up a Paleolithic fossil as she does of finding a sock.
“Why do you say ‘thank you’?” asks Salvador, carefully handing Gabriela a micro-waved quesadilla. “He hasn’t found it yet.”
She has broken many times arm, foot, tooth because she was very stiff, she had no looseness but we didn’t know that she was not supposed to do sports and she liked to be always in movement.
“He’s no good! I hate you, Saint Anthony!” Sofia is yelling at the living room ceiling. “He takes too long! He takes two weeks!!” I ought to say something to my ten-year-old for this. Instead, I stir the mouse on the mouse pad.
She didn’t like to work at school and to stay quiet…now she is 26 and have to stay quiet because her body can’t allow her to move like in her youth. When she was 16, she was in art school but she could no longer paint with her arms blocked. Two years ago she want to die because her jaw freeze and it is too hard to live like that; she didn’t eat anymore?
“Sofia,” Gabriela enunciates. “Saint Anthony doesn’t just ring the door bell and say, ‘Here’s your sock!'” I check the ink on my palm. It’s probably time– exactly now– to leave for the ring ceremony, but I cannot take my eyes off the last words on the screen:
I told her that I was there near her but I couldn’t eat in her place, and after a long time she decided to live with the FOP.
“Drive faster, Mom!” In the captain’s seat to me, Salvador is resplendent, if a little pale, in a white shirt and one of his father’s ties assembled around his neck with the help of a FAX. My husband, Antonio, is out of town for the packinghouse, our eldest, Carlos, drove Rafael to the eighth grade soccer clinic, and my dad left for Mexico; so Father Manuel sent Sal a cheat sheet. And on tiptoe, I used blue DEP to tamp down the waves on the top of my son’s head. He will not use the catalogue device that can arc a comb over his crown.
“Mom?” says Sofia, as we accelerate through a yellow light. “When I’m a grown-up, will I have a mustache?”
“Of course not.”
“Because Raf said mustaches are hereditary,” explains Sofia. “And you have one.” I involuntarily check myself in the rearview mirror.
“Slugbug! Green!” shouts Gabriela from her booster, hitting Sofia’s arm as we pass a Volkswagen. A no-it’s-not yes-it-is no-it’s-not exchange follows for longer than most parents will bear, but I’m driving too hard to speak.
“Hummer!” calls Salvador, stopping the fight. His shoulder blades hurt, and he cannot turn back to tag. Everyone knows it’s forbidden to hit Sal. But the military jeep falls behind, into the twilight, and there no cars near us to finish the game, anyway.
“In high school you don’t get to color,” Gabriela complains, out of the blue. “And you have to divide!” She has a pink tiara in her tea-colored curls, which I will forget to grab before we get inside.
“By then you’ll be smarter,” remarks Sofia. She launches helpfully into a parable with a door-to-door king distributing jellybeans through his kingdom. I myself am having trouble keeping track of the king’s zeros, and check the rearview mirror. Gabriela is paying most of her attention to a slatted truck shedding white chicken feathers along the highway.
“I’ll write it down for you when we get home,” concludes Sofia as we pull into the parking lot. I fish a brush from a tangle of toys and school papers on the floor between seats, reach back and take a few swipes down my daughter’s long black hair.
“Me and Gabby missed Celina’s party,” says Sofia, shrugging away the brush. I notice she is wearing one sock.
“Did you ask her when it was?” I ask lamely. Gabriela is defiantly adjusting her tiara, which doesn’t go with a plaid scrunchy or the navy uniform pants she and Sofia are wearing. I use fingers like a comb on my hair. We will just have to move on as we are.
“She stuck her hand in front of my face and said, ‘Talk to the hand.'”
Sal forges ahead, stronger than his limp. At least we’re here, on time– I’m certain of it– at the right spot, a well-lighted hangar of a church with goal post structures on the altar and a crucifix that looks like exploding metal. There are times when I miss the dim Spanish chapels of my childhood with their natural-sized saints, gold leaf and baroque excess. Salvador reaches for a hand from each little sister and guides the girls around the indoor amphitheatre to where his class is segregated by “RESERVED” signs in large bold font at the end of each pew. Sal leaves us to sit by his friend Luke, but is shooed away to an assigned section by an official looking woman in lilac, Mrs. Jones, most likely. I know my son will be uneasy between kids he does not know.
“Wait! Sal!” I call. Salvador stops. I pull the new camera from my purse; he pulls a face. Photography isn’t a hobby, it?s a compulsion, humored only by our five-year-old. Somewhere in my drawer of film roles, yellow cylinders confused with old prescriptions and batteries, are the negatives of sullen profiles, crossed eyes, knives stabbing cakes decorated with candles. But a compulsion is a compulsion. I set the flash and get a shot of Sal shaking his head at the goal posts.
A trio of sophomores with thin voices sings hymns I no longer recognize, as altar servers and clergy file in. The ceremony’s main celebrant is a priest from India, a striking young man with white hair. His tongue moves delicately over the hard consonants of English as he speaks to the meaning of the ring ceremony. I see the light palms of his dark hands opened, his gestures slow, as if pausing, itself, were a sacred act. Behind him is Father Manuel, looking more like a man of the cloth; and a new priest, a former Episcopalian they say is married. This is the first time I have seen one of these clergymen in person and I look for signs of his state, a more anchored body, perhaps, a different virility. I study the ash blond priest, his full frame, and watch his fingers to find out how many rings he has. I can’t tell, and remember my own son doesn’t have even one, as each teacher and administrator at the lectern speaks to the promise of youth, of eternity spelled in a ring.
The Indian priest starts to look like a saint in one of the holy cards I saved in another life. The girls snort suddenly, and I wedge myself between them. It is getting difficult, tiring, to make out the words of the priest, who keeps saying “our fate,” when he means, “our faith.”
But then I see Salvador. He has moved directly across us, to the front of the church, and is leaning against a baby grand’s inside curve, his weight on the better leg. He stands behind two rigid blond girls with flutes, and they play “Morning has Broken.” My son’s breath in the gold notes of the trumpet stings my eyes. Sofia is still. Gabriela leans her warm weight into me as if to sleep.
Father Manuel, Manny, is clearing his throat at the mike. (I still can’t believe he’s a priest; I can still see his big back blocking the Ramirez brothers, their noses running with blood, his beefy shoulders rounded in Brother Joseph’s office. But Sal likes the man, with his bull-in-a-china-shop faith, never too polite, never asking how Sal is feeling.) I scan the pews for my son, who is back to sitting very straight between the two boys I don’t recognize.
He breathes with his diaphragm muscles and basically walks with the remaining muscles in the back part of his legs that have not hardened: This on the screen last week: how is it I remember?
I force my attention back on Father Manuel, who is reading:
Thus says the Lord: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared, then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing?
In another life, I’ve heard this passage, one more Biblical prescription. But tonight the words surprise me like smoke, like incense, filtering in and through me, like a deep breath filling the honeycomb of loss in my soul, settling like a blessing, leaving me with something like peace. I do not really see the Juniors called up name by name, parading self-consciously down the aisle, the hunching youths and their convalescent walk, the bounding athletes, the glamorous young women, the unfinished girls ashamed of their skin or dress size. I do not hold my breath or even my camera as Salvador goes up the half moon of gold steps, with the dignified limp that will not show in a photograph. And though I am too far away to see, I know that Salvador’s hands open for the silver weave that binds the blue circle, the immaculate face unmarked by numbers and unmarred by lines.
The Junior Ring Ceremony is over, and we congregate in the mild autumn evening by a white fountain. Father Manuel is moving toward us, near a table of Gatorade and homemade cakes where Salvador has posed with a group of friends, boys with strong smiles and clear eyes– cameras raised by other mothers, who will, no doubt, hand me photographs next week in the parking lot.
“So, you got your time blessed, m’hijo,” Father Manuel says.
Salvador smiles quietly, looks directly at me. I press my cheek to his bony shoulder. There is something I need to know: “Manny, your passage–”
Father Manuel is about to put a Dixie cup with Gatorade to his lips. “The prophet Isaiah?”
“Did you pick it for any special reason?” I spot Sofia and Gabriela at another table loading napkins with brownies, and pantomime at them. Gabriela, the tip of her nose brushed with frosting, delicately returns a few of the treats with chocolate-coated fingers.
“I didn’t exactly choose it,” Father Manuel says, following my eyes. “Mrs. Jones wanted to keep everything close to the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time– and that’s the first reading scheduled in the Missal.”
He gives me a wily look. Manny, Father Manuel, is not used to this type of question from me. He watches Salvador, who arches one eyebrow; and then, like an actor realizing he’s missed a cue, the priest announces: “Salvador has something to show you!”
Salvador extends his arms out in front of himself as far as he can raise them, which is just below shoulder height. His white sleeve hitches up from the blessed blue watch, a Fossil, the one Antonio slipped him for his birthday. Except now it’s green, prism green; rose stem green; green, the color of hope. I admire it closely. “You switched?” I ask. My husband told us the watch could change its face. “It’s beautiful.”
Salvador nods absently, as if I’m missing the obvious. He exaggeratedly rotates his other arm. It takes me a moment to register what I see.
“Remember?” Strapped around Salvador’s right wrist is a band of cracked leather holding a Mickey Mouse watch, the cartoon in red lederhosen, one white gloved finger pointing straight up, the other signaling East: 3 o’clock.
I am stunned.
I haven’t seen this watch, my watch, my high school watch, in six years. Not since those hours at Children’s, with Sal lying still in white MRI tunnels, all my jewelry removed. And those days after, when the rings, my rings, grew too big and rolled across floors as I talked to specialists: silver circles with turquoise, my gold band, the zirconium engagement ring, all returned to me by sympathetic receptionists, all in envelopes with a giraffe mascot on them.
I can formulate no response. “I thought I–”
“Father Manny found it.”
“Manny? Today? Where–?” The reception is thinning out, mothers are throwing open their arms at one other and boys are hooking fingers in ties.
Father Manuel looks uncharacteristically sheepish. A group of parents and Juniors comes by to greet him, but veers off, shaking hands with the Indian priest and the Episcopalian. I see Sofia and Gabriela balancing on the white perimeter of the fountain.
“I have a confession to make,” says Father Manuel. “I’ve had it for six years.”
Exactly six years minus two months. I am starting to feel angry, nauseous.
“It was in the confessional, well, not in–”
“And you just kept it? Isn’t that some kind of special sin?” I realize I’ve raised my voice when boys in a cluster by the Gatorade turn their heads.
“I’m sorry, Luz. It was that day you?” The priest’s eyes search the church’s abstract stained glass, as if he might find something there for this explanation. But he doesn’t have to say anything. I know the day. The day after Sal’s diagnosis. The day the Tule fog hung on past noon, choking sight, erasing landmarks with air like chalk dust. Saturday, November the 9 at 11:55 a.m., when the line at the confessional still snaked past the bank of blue candles, and Sal had been standing for too, too long and I lost my temper with whichever priest was giving therapy instead of absolution, and banged on the dark door in the middle, and it flew open and I slammed it when I saw the surprised face, and I grabbed Salvador’s still-perfect right arm and left the church.
“I figured I’d give it to you when you came back,” said Father Manuel simply.
There is nothing I can say, not in front of my son, not in front of anyone. Sal is strapping the watch on my wrist, and I check it, a reflex lost six years ago. Mickey Mouse’s smiling face made a mockery of things the last time I saw it.
“It’s stuck on 3 o’clock,” is all I can say, raising Mickey to Father Manuel and Sal, my hand a fist. The piece obviously hasn’t ticked for some time.
“The hour of mercy,” the priest says quietly.
The hour of mercy. Yes. Yes, I know that, I realize. When Christ was taken down from the cross.
The girls jog up to me, Sofia is barefoot and her uniform pants are rolled to her knees, the cuffs soaked.
“She falled in the fountain!” announces Gabby triumphantly. A few Junior girls, young women I barely recognize from the years I taught at the parish school are looking our way. I can tell they want to say something about Sofia’s shoes, but are deciding not to.
“Fell,” Sal corrects. He runs a hand through Gabby’s brown curls. She moves behind him for protection.
“Tattletale,” says Sofia. She thinks I wouldn’t have noticed anything, but she is wrong now.
“Father Manuel blessed your watch, too.” Sal looks at me hopefully. “We thought it up today.”
In response, I consider Mickey Mouse. He has changed in six years; he has certainly changed since high school.
It takes me longer than I would like to find my voice. “Throw in an Absolution and some batteries and we’re even,” I finally say to the priest. Father Manuel puts a hand to his beard, nods soberly, then gives his big bucktoothed laugh.
I scoop up Gabriela, who is charmed by the treasure I wear. She is just learning to tell time and pronounces it as a question. Sofia checks Mickey Mouse’s hands and laughs.
In the distance of the parking lot I am surprised see my husband, Antonio, my sons Carlos and Rafael. Salvador lopes over and the four, all now even in height, all dark haired and handsome, glorious, smile at me and the girls, at Father Manuel looking back, moving off with his arm across the Indian priest’s shoulders.
“I know we’re too late, but we came anyway,” calls Antonio from the curb.
“You made it at exactly the right time,” I call back over dispersing little groups, raising a hand, raising my watch like a torch.
This story was originally published in “Dreams and Visions,” Summer 2003, Skysong Press
Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP) is a rare heritable disorder of connective tissue characterized by congenital malformations of the great toes and by progressive heterotopic endochondral osteogenesis in predictable anatomic temporal patterns. Disease flare-ups can occur spontaneously or can be induced by minor trauma. FOP is the most extensive disorder of heterotopic osteogenesis in humans and leads to catastrophic disability in early adulthood.
–Frederick S. Kaplan and Robina M. Smith
Journal of Bone and Mineral Research Vol. 12, Number 5, 1997