The following excerpt is from The Truth, a novel to be published this month by New Issues Poetry & Prose. It is written in the voice of Chuy PingarrÃ³n, a palsied hunchback who spends his days on the front porch of a San Antonio whorehouse and is proud to be dubbed its “standard of perversion.” He tells the stories of those who visit and work at the establishment, including the Midwife, who is also the house’s madam, and Soledad, deemed by her mother to be a saint.
That’s how things were for some time then. With the Midwife acting like the midwife that she is, the child la Soledad was finally born, and from the first minute of her life she was dressed in white as was her mother Hortensia, who chose for herself robes of a white that is almost yellow so as not to appear to rival the robes of her daughter who she said was sent from Heaven.
And you know how life is. It goes on from one day to the next, even in the lives of the saints themselves. There was the business of the house and there was the little house in back that was slowly turning itself into a shrine where Hortensia sat day in and day out with the baby la Soledad on her lap while one person then another came to pay their respects to the little virgin. And reports of little miracles that followed closely after the birth of la Soledad began to reach our ears at this time, told by some of the people who came to kiss the hem of la Soledad’s white robe. An old man’s dog got up from the very hole in which it had been thrown for burial. A truck of cabbages turned over covering a little boy who was saved by the strong branches of a mountain laurel bush that he was walking past and who said, when they pulled him out, that as the cabbages were falling over him he had a vision of the little virgin who lived down the street.
And there were other little miracles. A woman who was baking for the brothers at the church ran to the little house in back to pray that her cakes would rise again that had fallen when her husband slammed the door when he came home from work. This miracle, indeed, was also carried out, as I know for myself when the woman showed up the next day with a cake for the little virgin who had saved her baking and another cake for the Midwife who gave us this shrine in our own neighborhood in the first place. And this is how it went. Someone’s baby took its first step. Someone’s mother recovered from a spell. What I’m saying is that this was the daily progress of the life of the little virgin, and so in its own way it was the same as any other life. Some things happen. Other things don’t happen. Who can tell the difference?
Hortensia for her part became more and more convinced of the special nature of her daughter. And on top of that, her own feelings about herself as the mother of this little saint also began to grow. She said that it’s one thing to be a whore forever and quite another thing entirely to start out a life in the profession of a whore in order to compare everything else that comes after it in life to that experience, though she would not say such a thing directly to the Midwife even under the protection of her new position as the mother of a saint.
And I must admit that, when I first heard the stories of the little miracles, I thought that perhaps I should go to the little house in back to see what all the other people went to see, that from the way some people talked Hortensia and her baby la Soledad must have been replaced by a vision of the heavens or at least by the angels of gold you see inside the biggest churches downtown or at least by some trick of mirrors Hortensia devised. But when I looked inside all I could see was Hortensia in her yellow robes with the baby la Soledad sleeping on her lap while an old woman was touching the white hem of her dress. That’s all I saw and so I saw no reason to look again very often. You can see that kind of thing anywhere you go. Even in the bars they have it.
And I say this because in those days we used to go to Los Dos Amantes Lounge that used to be not so very far away from here. All of us would go there. When business was slow on a certain night, the Midwife would say that it was time to get out of the house altogether and she would close the house at midnight saying she would take anyone who wanted to go and Chuy who doesn’t know what he wants but will never refuse a beer. We would go to Los Dos Amantes, and after the first months of the shrine Hortensia would also come carrying Soledad Mata dressed in white. We would sit there in the bar all together with the baby on the table. And the little virgin, she would all the time be saying, Ca, ca, ca, ca, and all the time one of the women would be holding onto her leg or her arm, and anyone who was in the bar could not fail to notice her, who even then had eyes that had their starting point in another world entirely.
And Hortensia was always watching everyone who watched la Soledad. No one walking by in Los Dos Amantes Lounge could fail to reach out a hand to touch the baby on the head or to kiss the baby’s feet. And even as they were walking up or standing not far away captured by the eyes of purest light, Hortensia was already saying to them, TÃ²cala, tÃ²cala, touch the little one, the way she almost sang it sometimes, sounding like the priest himself before the Holy Virgin, making sure every person touched la Soledad, who was herself saying, Ca, ca, ca, making sure no one looked without touching, that no one left the mark of their vision of the world, what they call the bad eye, without wiping it off again with the light touch of their appreciation. And every once in a while, someone who was too drunk to see his own salvation would stumble out of Los Dos Amantes, and Hortensia would hand the baby virgin to someone sitting next to her and run out into the street and grab the wayward sinner and start yelling, What’s the matter? Are you too fucking drunk to touch the closest you’ll ever get to God Almighty and all His angels? What the fuck is the matter with you, you worthless, lousy goddamn shithead? Are you trying to fuck up a virgin baby saint forever? And she’d drag him back into the bar and put his hand on the baby’s foot and then give the drunk a push back out the door. And then she’d look around at everyone in the bar and announce, You think it’s easy being the mother of a saint? You can never give in. Then she picked up la Soledad and put her on her lap.
The little virgin herself, as she grew older, began to call to anyone who walked by, TÃ²came, tÃ²came. She called to them in such a way that even those who had been deaf to the needs of the world for more than forty years could hear her call, the way it entered the pores of the skin and ran toward the arm that led to the hand that itself was led without stopping to the head or the foot of la Soledad.
And in these later years, if there was this person or that one who was driven by the ghosts of his own drunkenness to go stumbling past the little virgin saying TÃ²came, tÃ²came, without stopping to respect the mystery of her being there, then that person was stopped nonetheless, before he could fall against the fence outside the door, by the undeniable power of the voice of Soledad Mata that called the person back to her, running into tables all the way, falling to his knees before her, asking her forgiveness as she sat there on the table saying over and over, TÃ²came, tÃ²came. To go in those years to Los Dos Amantes Lounge with Hortensia and her daughter la Soledad was to sit in the stand of the Pope himself while the parade of the humble and the ones who feel guilty for everything they ever did walk by asking for forgiveness for their lives. This went on for several years at Los Dos Amantes until the time that someone’s wife tried to solve the drinking problems of her husband with a match of persuasion that burned down the bar.
And I always think of that tÃ²came, tÃ²came and the way the woman with boils on her arm came to the door one morning asking for the little virgin she had heard about from her neighbor who had kissed her feet at Los Dos Amantes. We led this woman to the little house where Hortensia was waking up and la Soledad was sleeping in her crib with the power of her eyes turned in upon her dreams. And the woman said she came not for herself but for her sister who was lying at this moment six inches from the grave with the clothes she chose to wear in death already on her. She asked if she might touch the little virgin in the hope of carrying that touch back to her sister’s bed. And she said that if her sister were cured of the rattle of death itself, then that sister would forever dedicate the life she was given back to the service of the little virgin and she would do so dressed the way an angel dresses, all in white and shiny cloth, the way she was dressed lying in her bed at that very moment, so that she might better serve la Soledad, who must be an angel herself who has stopped in the middle of flying to rest at this station on earth. The woman said this to Hortensia, who smiled with a mother’s pride and touched la Soledad, who woke up saying, TÃ²came, tÃ²came. The woman with boils got down on her knees to kiss the feet of la Soledad. And then she got up with the softness of la Soledad’s feet still on her lips and ran from the little house in back.
We thought no more about what had happened, as these things must happen all the time to those who are so chosen by other people or who choose themselves, until maybe one month or even two months later when a woman appeared at the kitchen door in the early morning dressed in the white satin robes of an angel with a paper bag under her arm, saying, I am Maribel PideperdÃ³n, come to serve the little virgin for all time. The Midwife said there was nothing to do with her but obey her desires. You cannot stand in the way of a contractual agreement with God, she said.
Hortensia herself didn’t know what to make of the woman, who spent the first days and nights sleeping at the feet of la Soledad and insisted on carrying the little virgin on a blue satin pillow like a cloud through every step of her life, which was the start of la Soledad’s bad habit of always being carried around. But a few days of this was too much for Hortensia, who had not only a mother’s pride but also a mother’s right of ownership. So, after talking with the Midwife, it was decided that the new angel Maribel would be used to cook all the meals for the baby la Soledad and for everyone else besides. And that is why, if you ask the way they all do why a woman dressed in white satin like an angel is the one who makes the coffee and scrubs the sink, I answer that Maribel PideperdÃ³n, the one who was saved from death, washes the ash trays and the glasses in the morning smiling all the time because she’s confused and thinks she’s landed in Paradise itself.
And there’s no need to ever ask what I think about such a misconception. But maybe I don’t know everything. Maybe if your whole life has been spent with a sister who has boils and is always making your promises for you, then scrubbing the floors in the Midwife’s house might be a paradise to hope for. There are so many different ideas in this life. She scrubs the floors and smiles. Perhaps this is how one acts in Paradise. I don’t know. And for my own sake I hope I never find out.
Geoff Rips of Austin is a former editor of The Texas Observer and serves on the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation, which publishes the Observer. He works as director of special projects for the Austin Independent School District. He has published various works of poetry and fiction. The Truth won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ award for novels in 2006.